What is Anxiety and When is it a Disorder?

Most individuals experience feelings of uneasiness, worry, or fear, and will describe themselves as having anxiety. A certain amount of anxiety is normal, such as being anxious before taking a major test or going to a job interview. God gave us the capacity for anxiety to protect us. It serves to help us avoid hazardous situations and prepare our bodies to fight or to flee when danger is near. However, some people feel an inappropriate amount of anxiety—too much!—when performing daily tasks, and this can be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders occur because the amygdala, which is like the brain’s alarm system, goes into overdrive producing stress chemicals. This causes someone to become hypersensitive and then overreact to numerous situations, sometimes including the normal comings and goings of daily life. It is possible for our brains and our bodies to act as if we are facing an imminent threat when in actuality we are not. Therefore, anxiety is what happens when the brain’s stress-warning systems become overwhelmed and hyper-activated.

Do You Believe any Myths about Anxiety?

We hear a lot of different things about anxiety and it can be easily misunderstood. Here are a few myths that people often buy into and which can come up in counseling.

The First Myth: Anxiety is a sign of weakness

Some people believe anxiety is a sign of weakness or moral failure and that feeling anxious is a sin. They blame themselves for feeling this way and condemn themselves for not praying long enough or going to confession often enough. In truth, even individuals who have embraced vocations that center on a life of prayer, such as cloistered nuns, still suffer from feelings of anxiety.

The Second Myth: Anxiety is abnormal

Believing anxiety is abnormal is another myth. However, having intense anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean it’s abnormal, like they are the only ones to feel this way. Many individuals experience anxiety and panic attacks, and many individuals have learned to embrace anxiety as a part of life. There are ways to overcome it and ensure it to destroy their life.

The Third Myth: Anxiety is biological and hereditary

Sometimes we hear that anxiety is biological and hereditary. In truth, it is not clear why anxiety afflicts one person but not another. While anxiety appears to run in families, it has more to do with learned behavior than it does with one’s genes. Individuals may inherit a predisposition to be anxious, but this does not mean individuals inherit an anxiety disorder.

What are Some Common Anxiety Disorders?

The following are some of the common anxiety disorders. This is not an exhaustive list of all the anxiety disorders, but they are the most common types of anxiety seen in counseling sessions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly called the DSM) is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions and mentions several conditions that fall within the classification of anxiety disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

People who suffer from this disorder experience excessive anxiety or worry about the things of everyday life in a way that causes distress or significant impairment in normal daily functioning. For a diagnosis of GAD to be made, feelings of anxiety must occur most days for six months.

Panic Disorder

This disorder is defined by sudden, terrifying and often unexpected panic attacks. There are a number of symptoms that may accompany these attacks. These include elevated heart rate or a pounding heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking, the feeling of being short of breath or being unable to breathe, a sensation of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint. Individuals experiencing a panic attack feel they are not experiencing reality. They fear of losing control or going insane.

Agoraphobia

This disorder is characterized by a dread associated with certain places. These places provoke discomfort and the individual feels he or she will not be able to escape. The individual may feel helpless or embarrassed at the thought of having feelings of anxiety in public place.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Individuals with this disorder have an intense, excessive or persistent fear of being judged or humiliated in social situations. Individuals with social anxiety disorder might seemingly get through a social event, but the anxiety felt before and during the situation can be excruciating.

Specific Phobias

Specific phobias are marked by a persistent, powerful, irrational fear of something. The object of fear may range from something most normal individuals would fear such as muggers, snakes or something most normal individuals would not fear such as a kitten. Sometimes even just thinking about the object of the phobia can bring on intense anxiety, and encountering the feared object or situation can provoke a panic attack.

In past years the American Psychiatric Association has included obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as anxiety disorders. While these disorders do include feelings of anxiety, the DSM distinguishes OCD and PTSD from anxiety disorders.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Individuals with OCD will use ritual or repetitive behaviors (compulsions) in an attempt to reduce the anxiety produced by their obsessions. These individuals might have an obsession with germs, which causes the individual to indulge in repetitive hand washing, or the fear a door left unlocked which causes the individual to check the door many times. These compulsions take away energy and interfere with living a healthy life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can occur when a person is involved in or witnesses a life-threatening event or one that causes or threatens serious personal harm to oneself or others. Things that remind the person about the event can trigger distress. These can include: loud noises or being surprised. The individual then experiences distressing memories of the event, a sense that the incident is somehow being replayed (such as flashbacks), or have disturbing dreams about the event. The individual might avoid any conversation about the trauma, and the individual might even be unable to recall significant aspects of the trauma.

Treating Anxiety and Getting Your Life Back

How Faith can Help You Overcome Anxiety

The words “protect us from all anxiety” are part of the Lord’s Prayer said at every Mass. This is noteworthy since anxiety is one of the main reasons people seek counseling, and it is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders. Feelings of anxiety appear to be the result of our daily existence.

God created man with the desire to have control over his future. This makes it impossible to be completely free from worry, but Sacred Scripture teaches us how to manage anxiety. For example, the young David who defeated the towering Goliath went on to become the valorous King David, a successful warrior and builder of the Jewish empire. The Lord entrusted him with tremendous responsibilities and his reign was even besieged with political revolt. His life was not without anxiety! As a poet who wrote many of the psalms he expressed his fears as well as his faith. In Psalm 56:3 he prayed, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” This is an important prayer that we too can pray when struggling with anxiety.

Saint Paul the Apostle, who was a zealous Jew and persecutor of the early Christians prior to his conversion, is a model for us as well. In his Letter to the Philippians he reflects on joy and peace as he writes, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

Looking to someone closer to our own time, Pope St. John Paul II was an incredible example of having steadfast faith during times of great trial. While growing up under Nazi-occupied Poland his mother died when he was only 9 years old, his brother died when he was 12, and his father died from a heart attack shortly before his 21st birthday. His years in seminary were then spent “underground”—their studies were kept secret due to the constant threat of the severest consequences. Later as a priest he served under communist rule. Nevertheless, in his first address as the Pope on October 22, 1978, he repeatedly encouraged us to not be afraid in the face of many anxieties: “Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power…Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ…Do not be afraid.”

2 Popular Treatments for Anxiety

A good therapist will use a wide range of psychotherapy methods. However, research has identified two types of therapy that are most effective in treating anxiety. These are Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Therapy (also known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Both types of these therapies have clinical and brain-based research in helping the individual decrease anxiety and change the way the brains processes stress.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy helps the individual identify unhealthy thinking patterns. CBT tries to confront and defeat anxious thoughts. The therapist will challenge the individual’s current beliefs and help him or her to learn different ways to manage stressful situations.

Mindfulness-Based Therapy (MBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Mindfulness-Based Therapy teaches the individual techniques to take control of the anxiety and reduce it. MBT/ACT teaches techniques that enable the individual to embrace the anxiety and consciously redirect emotional energy into productive activities. A wonderful resource is The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety by John Forsyth and George Eifert.

5 Coping Skills that can Reduce Anxiety

  1. Create a balanced schedule. When life feels out of control it is very helpful to have a daily and weekly routine. The routine gives us a greater sense of security and stability because we know what comes next within the day. It also allows us to take some control over our life because we can choose what to do with some of our down time or choose how to structure our week. A balanced routine is going to have time for work, time alone to reflect or do some activities you enjoy, time for prayer, and time for family and friends. (Read 6 Tips to Create a Balanced Life)
  2. Find support from others. We were not created to live alone; rather we were created to live in community with others. Everyone has someone in their life that they can turn to for support, whether that is their immediate family, a close friend or group of friends, a social group from church, or persons who dedicate their lives to helping others, such as a member of the clergy. Call upon these people during times of need. If you haven’t opened up with others before then this is a time to begin doing that. There are people in your life who love you and want to help you. Just let them know what’s going on and how they can support your right now.
  3. Keep a journal of times when you feel anxious. This practice can help you discover triggers that make you worry. Oftentimes there are a few key themes that we continuously feel anxious about. Understanding what those themes are can allow you to prepare for them or counteract them as needed. It also gives a greater sense of control. Journaling can simultaneously be used as a way to pray. You might consider addressing your journal to our Lord and just write about what you are feeling. Or you might take your journal to Eucharistic Adoration or to a chapel after already writing in it and then reflect on then reflect on what you wrote while you are in the presence of God. As you turn to God also ask for His help. (Discover 8 suggestions for new journal writers from the Center for Journal Therapy here)
  4. Practice relaxation. Regularly practicing relaxation techniques can greatly help to reduce anxiety. This might include deep breathing (when you feel anxious spend five minutes slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth), progressive muscle relaxation (tighten your muscles and then release the tension), meditation, and others. Finding a relaxation technique that works best for you and then working it into a regular schedule fosters relaxation, calms the mind and body, and reduces anxiety and stress. (Learn more about these techniques at Help Guide here)
  5. Find a great counselor. Sometimes we simply need professional help to overcome anxiety, and that’s okay. Experienced counselors support people all the time who have anxiety disorders or who just feel overwhelmed with certain fears or stressors in their life. A good counselor can give you the tools, coping skills, and encouragement you need to weather the storms in your life and face anxiety with greater courage and confidence. Our counselors are skilled in this area and are ready to help.

4 Ways Faith can Help You Overcome Anxiety

  1. Memorizing key Biblical verses can help when we are feeling overwhelmed. This is because experiencing anxiety sometimes challenges our faith and we even believe God has left us. During times like that we need to challenge this belief by turning to Scripture and remembering the truth of God’s love and fidelity to us. Remembering the truth can help restore our peace and help us cope with anxiety. Some go to verses include Psalm 46:10, Jeremiah 29:11, Psalm 56:3, 2 Timothy 1:7 and John 12:27. This can be a nice way to spend some of your prayer time.
  2. Catholics can also avail the Sacraments of Healing: Confession and Anointing of the Sick. While having anxiety is not a sin, we receive the graces from the sacraments to live a healthy life.
  3. Augustine wrote, “He who sings prays twice”. Singing can help one’s prayer life and reduce one’s anxiety. This is something you might do during your alone time if it is a hobby or gift that you enjoy.
  4. Reading the lives of the saints. They did not get to be saints by living a life free from anxieties and challenges. Saint Dymphna, Saint Padre Pio, and Blessed Margaret of Castello might be good places to start.