Understanding Anxiety: The Origin, Function and Strategies How to Deal With It

I took some time to read into one of the most common and impactful emotions many of us report to experience today: anxiety.

Understanding where anxiety comes from and what it signals may help you find ways to manage it effectively. If not for yourself, maybe you can help a friend who's dealing with anxiety. Knowing how to respond and empathize with someone with anxiety can be healing.

What is anxiety, and when does it show up?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Anxiety biologically developed to inform you about perceived threats. Unlike fear, anxiety lingers. Fear is an emotion that is a direct response to a present-moment threatening situation; it shows up and recedes once the actual threat is not present. Anxiety, on the other hand, may not decrease for a period of time. It can last for days, weeks, or months without a break. It can occur at random times and doesn’t seem to have only one trigger. For example, many people report feeling anxious the moment they wake up. There is no real threat, yet the feeling is real. The symptoms of anxiety also vary from mild nausea and light-headedness to panic attacks or physical chest pain.

To simplify this complex experience, I like to think of anxiety as a smoke detector. It is designed to pick up on smoke, which can be real fire but also can be burning incense sticks. You only know when you inspect the house and find the source of smoke. The house is big and has many rooms - that's your body.

What can cause anxiety?

Anxiety is a complex emotional and psychological response that can be caused or influenced by a variety of factors, according to research. Anxiety can be a normal and adaptive response to stress or perceived danger. A traumatic event, sudden life changes, losses, or a hostile environment can trigger anxiety. It can respond to a potential loss of control, humiliation, or neglect. Among these environmental factors, there are more, such as genetics, imbalance in brain chemistry, personality traits like perfectionism or neuroticism, poor physical health, substance abuse or withdrawal, abnormalities in how the brain processes emotions and stimuli, etc. The range of causes is wide. Therefore, it is very difficult to know what exactly is causing anxiety. Often, it’s a combination of many factors, and exploring potential sources needs to be done cautiously. You cannot approach anxiety with simplicity. Environmental or historical causes often can be traced, but there might be a need for medical examination as well to determine the causes.

What’s the function of anxiety, and what to do with it?

Anxiety is a natural and adaptive response with the primary purpose of helping us deal with potentially dangerous or stressful situations. When we encounter a perceived threat or challenge, anxiety can trigger the "fight or flight" response, which prepares our body and mind to respond effectively. Here are some of the key functions of anxiety:

  1. Enhanced performance and alertness: anxiety can enhance alertness and awareness, helping us notice potential threats or problems in our environment. A moderate level of anxiety can improve performance in some situations. It can sharpen focus, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving.
  2. Motivation and creativity: anxiety can motivate us to prepare for future challenges or to take action to avoid negative outcomes. It can prompt us to study for an exam, meet deadlines, or make necessary changes in our lives, like move houses after divorce or starting a business from scratch.
  3. Risk Assessment: anxiety eventually is fear, which helps us assess risks and make safer decisions. It prompts us to consider the potential consequences of our actions and make choices that minimize harm or danger. Social anxiety can help us learn to discern better who we choose to open up to and trust.

However, it's also important to note that anxiety can trigger shutdown and collapse states. That's when we feel unproductive or "lazy." Being constantly stimulated eventually leads to exhaustion; therefore, if you're experiencing anxiety, consider that your sleepiness can be a result of your body trying to reach a balance.

Problems can arise when anxiety becomes excessive, chronic, or disproportionate to the situation at hand. In such cases, it can interfere with daily life and well-being, leading to anxiety disorders. That's when you need to consider getting professional support.

Solutions to consider when dealing with anxiety

To effectively manage anxiety, especially when it becomes overwhelming, consider the following strategies:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge your anxiety. Understand that it's a natural response and not necessarily harmful. It’s annoying and unpleasant because it seems to appear out of nowhere, but once you understand what it signals, it gets easier to integrate it into your life.
  2. Experiment with different ways to regulate your nervous system. Some mindfulness, deep breathing, and meditation techniques, as well as some progressive muscle relaxation, can help calm your mind and body. Simultaneously, try different activities that help you discharge the heightened energy states, e.g., swimming, dancing, jogging, gym, martial arts, self-defense courses, etc.
  3. Cognitive restructuring: daily challenges and negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and complex trauma therapy can be beneficial in this regard.
  4. Lifestyle changes and social support: find ways to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and stress management techniques; also, talk to friends, family, or support groups about your feelings. Social support can provide comfort and perspective.
  5. Stress reduction: identify and address sources of chronic stress in your life. Seek support when necessary, and consider resource (your time and energy) management and organizational strategies to reduce stress.
  6. Professional help: if anxiety is significantly affecting your life, consider seeking support from a mental health professional.  

It's essential to strike a balance with anxiety. While it can be a helpful response in some situations, excessive or unmanaged anxiety can have detrimental effects on your mental and physical well-being. Learning to recognize when anxiety is appropriate and when it's not is a critical step in managing it effectively. If you’d like help with getting some clarity on your anxiety, schedule an assessment call with me. Maybe I can help.

Written by
Jura Glo

With over ten years of experience guiding individuals and couples worldwide, I specialize in supporting those impacted by complex trauma.  

My personal experience navigating cults, institutional betrayal, and manipulative individuals has given me a unique understanding of the psychological and emotional impact of these dynamics.

This translates into my work and writing, where I help my clients identify core issues and co-create solutions within a safe, balanced and supportive environment.

Where to start?

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