Anxiety is an emotion that all humans experience. Anxiety is the clinical term for the cluster of physical sensations associated with fear. Fear is a normal response to danger that is essential for survival in all animals. However, too little or too much fear can have long-lasting negative consequences.
The purest and simplest expression of fear is the startle response which can be seen in infants. The startle response and the body's reaction to fear are perfectly normal and don't need to be learned. Through learning, the feeling of fear becomes associated with experiences. In this way anxiety comes to affect feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
The physical sensations of anxiety originate in the central nervous system. These sensations are all the result of the body automatically readying itself for fight or flight (escape): muscles contract; breathing becomes shallow; and senses become more acute. Most people aren't aware of the muscle tension, shallow breathing and hyper-vigilance that is part of our animal nature.
Complaints about anxiety symptoms usually identify secondary symptoms: muscle tension can lead to trembling, shaking, and overall fatigue; shallow breathing can lead to feeling a choking or smothering sensation; lack of oxygen to the brain can result in feeling dizzy, faint, lightheaded; and hyper-vigilance can cause insomnia or disrupted sleep. Physical symptoms of nausea and chills or hot flashes can also be the secondary result of the body reacting to anxiety.
Just as there are predictable or normal sensations associated with anxiety, there are predictable or typical irrational beliefs about the symptoms. These irrational beliefs include: "I am going to lose control"; "I am going to have a heart attack"; "I am going to go crazy"; and "I am going to die". Thinking logically and rationally is one step to managing anxiety. Knowing that the physical sensations and the extreme thoughts are normal can help with recovery from anxiety.
The skills for coping with anxiety are numerous, but must be personalized based on each person's symptoms. Behavioral therapy is focused on attempts to counter the physical symptoms that are common when anxious: practicing: relaxation and deep breathing and aerobic exercise or yoga; are ways to help the body return to a non-anxious state. Cognitive therapy is focused on attempts to change the thoughts that are common when anxious: questioning and challenging automatic thoughts and visualization or self-hypnosis are techniques to help the mind return to a non-anxious state. Many people find talking to a friend or writing in a journal helps them think more clearly and/or get their mind off their anxiety.
Facing fears and learning to tolerate anxiety is no easy task, and as a result many people avoid anxiety provoking situations. Others may use drugs or alcohol as a way of self medicating. These coping skills may bring short-term relief but no long-term solution and only reinforce the anxiety and the belief that these behaviors are necessary. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, giving in to the idea "I am going crazy" or "I can't control my breathing" will only sustain or worsen one's anxiety.
There is help available when anxiety becomes troubling. An evaluation by a trained professional will assess your experience of anxiety and plan the optimal treatment approach for you. A combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies will probably be recommended. Your treatment might also include therapy that involves talking about your past as it relates to your anxiety and addressing any health conditions or personal circumstances that may be impacting your symptoms. Discussion will likely also address diet, exercise and sleep.