Center for Conscious Living

Anxiety: When a Useful Emotion Becomes a Problem

  • "I was shopping at the mall. I felt good. I was looking at some clothes on a rack, when suddenly, without warning and without any reason, I felt terrified. My heart was pounding. I was sweating. I thought I was having a heart attack."
  • "I'm okay in most situations. But my job requires me to make speeches or presentations to large groups of people. I get nervous for hours before one of these events, even though I try not to think about it. When it's time to speak, my hands start to shake. I start to perspire. I'm afraid people will notice, and that makes me even more nervous."
  • "I worry all the time. I worry about how I performed yesterday. I worry about what I have to do tomorrow. It interferes with my sleep. Then I worry about how I'll be able to perform without enough sleep. If I get plenty of sleep, I worry that I'm sleeping too much."
  • "I wash my hands at least 30 times a day. If I don't, I feel like they're dirty, like I've picked up germs. I know this is silly. My hands are dry and irritated from all the washing. But when I try to stop, I get anxious about the germs again."
  • "My Aunt Helen refuses to leave her house. The rest of us in the family have to go buy her groceries. She won't visit us; we have to visit her. When she gets sick, we can't even get her to go to the doctor."

Fear versus Anxiety

Everybody experiences fears, worries, and anxiety. It's a normal part of life. Your sympathetic nervous system has been programmed by evolution to help you protect yourself from realistically threatening situations. When you feel anxious, your body is preparing for action. Scientists have called this the "fight or flight" mechanism. When fear is an appropriate reaction, it promotes your survival and continued well-being. It arouses you to react quickly and with increased energy. It helps you avoid or escape genuinely threatening situations. In moderation, fear or anxiety help you to perform better in social and business situations. Your mind and body are working as they should.

Overreactions in Daily Life

However, when you repeatedly experience fear or anxiety in response to situations that are not objectively threatening; or when the fear you experience is out of proportion to the threat; or when you are so afraid of your own anxiety reaction that it interferes with your performance at work or in social situations; or when your fear keeps you from engaging in the normally satisfying activities of life, your sympathetic nervous system is over-reacting.

Phobias: From Rational to Irrational

The funny thing about worry and anxiety is that it usually feels quite reasonable at the time. "Of course I am worried about flying. There was that plane crash last year." "Some spiders are poisonous. It is reasonable not to be able to stay in the room with that one." But you also know intellectually that flying is safer than driving, that most spiders are annoying, but not harmful, and that your nervous system is on hyper-drive. And as much as you reason with yourself, the anxiety seems to get worse. You start to avoid the thing that you are afraid of. This is a phobia. When you experience a phobic response, it is useful to seek help to learn exactly what sorts of thought changes or physiological processes will actually overcome the phobic response.

Panic Attacks

Emergency rooms are full of people suffering suddenly, without warning, from feelings of terror or physiological reactions such as heart pounding, sweating, feeling faint, dizziness, trembling, weakness. But once you have ruled out a heart condition or other life-threatening health issue, and you have been told you are most certainly not going to die, you are left with this miserable experience that can re-occur. If such an event happens in a public place or situation, you may develop a phobia of such places or situations, for fear of embarrassing yourself. Then, because you never know when you might have another panic attack, you may develop a phobic response to panic attacks, or even agoraphobia, staying home to avoid the possibility of having a panic attack in public. You have now developed a phobia of having a phobia! Rational Emotive Therapy, the father of the cognitive therapies, is a great first step in overcoming panic--combined with hypnosis and mental imagery, powerful healing can take place. You can get back to normal.

Social Phobia

One common kind of phobia is called social phobia. This refers to a fear of certain kinds of social situations, such as speaking or performing before large groups of people, talking to superiors on the job, etc. Social phobias are often very specific. You may experience anxiety in one particular kind of situation, while being perfectly comfortable in most other situations. However, some people may feel uncomfortably anxious in a wide variety of social settings. Social phobia generally stems from a fear of being judged, and can be treated with rational emotive, cognitive therapy. You can learn to be comfortable speaking in public!

Obsessions and Compulsions

Anxiety can become obsessive. While most people have at least some things that we worry about and certain routines that they follow daily, such as eating dinner at the same time every evening, going jogging every morning at 6 a.m., for some of us, our worries or need to perform certain routines or rituals interfere with our ability to have a normal life. You may have recurring thoughts that are disturbing and generate anxiety. You might engage in repetitive acts of checking. For example, you might fear the possibility that your house will burn down. When it's time to go to work in the morning, you go back four or five times to be sure you turned off all the burners on the kitchen stove. Or you may engage in seemingly silly rituals that make little sense, even to you; washing your hands a certain number of times or counting things repetitively. Part of you knows it is silly, but another part forces you to participate to feel safe and make the anxiety go away. The thought is an obsession, and the behavior is called a compulsion. These processes can greatly interfere with your enjoyment of your life. Obsessions and compulsions are resitant to change, but good therapy can help you to uncover the reasons for these processes and feel better.

Traumatic Stress

Modern life is full of stressors. We are equipped to cope with normal stressors such as too many bills, losing a job, or even positive stressors such as having a baby. However, severe stressors such as your house burning down, getting raped, or experiencing an earthquake may overwhelm your normal coping mechanisms. Some people cope with these severe stressors, or traumas, by essentially becoming numb, distancing themselves from the pain and fear. This is called dissociation. But when the incident is over, and life should be returning to normal, you might find yourself experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, nighmares, excessive anxiety, emotional numbing, or avoidance of places or people which remind them of the event. Such symptoms may represent post-traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder. It represents the fight/flight system gone awry. You are stuck in the feelngs of the trauma long after it has ended. To feel better, your nervous system needs to discover that you are now safe.

Anxiety and Your Overactive Nervous System

Essentially, when you are anxious, your sympathetic nervous system is in a constant state of arousal. The stressors of modern life have hijacked the evolutionary response to danger. You feel afraid all the time, but you are not actually in danger. The key to calming yourself, then, lies in altering the perception of fear. Things may be less than wonderful; they may even be quite distressing, but it is rare in modern llife, for us to experience life-threatening fear of the sort those internal mechanisms are meant to help with. Thus you can learn to change your response and feel calmer and safer. Get off the hamster wheel of worry and discover a calmer you.

Anxiety Can Lead to Other Problems

As is probably obvious from the above, there can be considerable overlap among these types of anxiety problems. Anxiety often co-exists with depression. You may have depressive thoughts because of the restrictions that you have imposed on your life to avoid feeling anxious, or you may be depressed and develop an anxiety problem as well. Anxiety can also co-exist with insomnia or another sleep disorder. The body's constant state of arousal may disturb the normal sleep cycle. All of these problems are learned despite their real basis in physiology., Thus they can be unlearned.

The Antidote to Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can be successfully treated with psychotherapy. Options for treatment include: Experiential/Behavior Therapy helps you learn to deal with fear-evoking situations, usually by controlled exposure to them through visualization or, where possible, real life exposure. The primary treatment for obsessions and compulsions is called "exposure with response prevention." This sounds worse than it is. But, to recover, you eventually have to face the things that you fear. Combining cognitive, behavioral, and autogenic techniques creates an efficient means of conquering your anxiety.

Cognitive and Rational-Emotive Therapy help you learn the relationships between thinking, emotions, and behavior, and how to differentiate reality-based, rational thoughts from unrealistic thoughts, which lead to unrealistic fears. Learn to dispute your irrational thoughts and replace them with effective thoughts.

You can learn to use Relaxation and Self-Hypnosis to help yourself calm the physiological reactions to stressful situations. With such techniques, you are learning to control the response of your sympathetic nervous system and stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. Yes, you can reduce anxiety and bring it under control.

The Pros and Cons of Medications

While a variety of medications are now available for helping to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, medications are best used in emergency situations, since they are highly addictive, and without the learning created by psychotherapy, symptoms are likely to recur when the medication is discontinued. Some medications are aimed at altering mood, while others are aimed at controlling the physical manifestations of anxiety, such as rapid heart beat, etc. In addition, medications sometimes have undesirable side effects, rendering them unsuitable as a permanent solution. Even worse, some medications have anxiety as a side effect or withdrawal effect, while others can cause sleep disturbance or daytime drowsiness or fatigue. Thus, the best approach to treating such symptoms is NOT more medication. The psychological treatments discussed above help you learn skills that will last a lifetime, thus permanently reducing the likelihood of recurrence.

Effective Psychotherapy Puts You in Control

Dr. Carol B. Low, clinical psychologist, at the Center for Conscious Living is skilled in the use of the proven psychotherapeutic treatments discussed above. Typically, these therapies are used in combination. Therapies are aimed at rapidly decreasing anxiety symptoms, while you learn techniques to avoid recurrence. The goal of treatment is to alleviate your current symptoms and to teach you self-control methods that enable you to cope with new situations that arise in your life.

With reduction in anxiety symptoms, you will experience improved self-acceptance and a greater sense of mastery over yourself, your life, and your future. Elimination of unnecessary fear removes artifical, self-imposed restrictions on your career choices, social life, and romantic and other human relations, allowing you to more fully realize your potential.

Recommended Readings


Edelstein, Michael R. & Steele, David R. (1997) Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life
Ellis, Albert (2000) How To Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You
Hauck, Paul (1975) Overcoming Worry and Fear

 If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don't be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning 'Good morning' at total strangers.  -Maya Angelou