What is Anxiety? 

Anxiety is a natural human emotion. We all experience anxiety. Fear and anxiety are essential survival tools. If we didn’t get scared when a bear crossed our path, we humans wouldn’t have made it this far.

When we feel stressed before a test, when we double check an email before we send it to our boss, we’re experiencing adaptive anxiety.

Adaptive anxiety helps us to create security and guides us towards living well. We study hard so we don’t fail our class. We do our job well to make sure that we’ve got money in the bank and a roof over our heads.

Anxiety is our body’s response to threat. When we encounter something threatening, our body responds to ensure our survival. We don’t choose this response – our body does it for us automatically. Our nervous system fills us with stress hormones that prepare us to fight back (fight), run away (flight), or to play dead (freeze). Our heart races, our muscles tighten, blood rushes away from our brain to our limbs – all so that we can make it through a dangerous situation.

With adaptive anxiety, we experience this as stress. Our nervous system registers that a situation could lead to a negative outcome, and then releases stress hormones designed to make us act on our own behalf. It’s stressful to worry about failing a test -  but that stress fills us with energy to focus on our studies. Stress motivates us to work hard and ensure we have what we need in place for our survival and success.  

For some of us, though, anxiety can get out of hand. When fear has grown bigger than our ability to manage it, and it causes us to behave in ways that do us harm, we are experiencing maladaptive anxiety.

We study for a test for days on end, terrified that we’ll get anything less than an A+. We have panic attacks at work because we’re afraid of saying something stupid at team meetings.  

Maladaptive anxiety comes in many forms. Panic attacks, social anxiety, worst-case-scenario thinking, hypochondria, phobias, controlling behaviors - just to name a few. 

These are states in which the perception of threat has grown larger than the actual threat itself. It’s not the end of the world if we get less than an A+ on a test, and yet some part of us believes that it is.

But here’s the kicker - our bodies can’t tell the difference. Whether the threat is perceived or real, we still get flooded with the same stress hormones as our body prepares to survive a danger.

Maladaptive anxiety can feel exhausting and defeating. It can spiral out of our control and become a chronic part of our lives. Anxiety can isolate us, limit our world, tire out our bodies, rob our sleep, and do a number on our sense of self-worth.

Oftentimes, we are well aware that our fears don’t line up with reality. This can be the hardest part of anxiety! We know that we’re overreacting. We know that there’s no danger as we walk through the grocery store, but still the panic attacks come. Freak out over nothing enough times, and we can start to believe that there’s something seriously wrong with us.

But there isn’t. Truly. We’re not wrong. We’re not broken. In fact, we’re lovely! There are reasons that this is happening. Genetics, life experiences, trauma, negative self-worth… I’ll get into the causes of anxiety in my What Causes Anxiety page, but for now I’ll say that we come by it honestly.

Treating anxiety can be a profound exploration that enriches our lives. When we address anxiety head on, we can learn how to slow down, be kinder to ourselves, and honour who we truly are. Anxiety can become our teacher and guide us towards a deeper well-being.