Anxiety in a Word

By Brian Robinson.

A blurred word with blurred meaning.

When you attempt to describe a complicated thing, or a number of different things in a single word, it is bound to lead to misunderstandings. For example, when we use the word anxiety what exactly do we mean? What is it we are trying to describe? Is it the clinical definition; is it the experience of anxiety; is it the emotional state of affairs; is it the psychological condition; is it the nature of the beast; is it the scientific description; is it the composite of emotions? The truth is, one word will never adequately describe all these different things.

One of the most annoying misconceptions is the idea that ‘everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives’. We hear this over and over again. Yes, most people experience worry, acute worry even, call it anxiety if you want, but that is not the same as the experience of General Anxiety Disorder. The only way you can feel like a GAD sufferer is if you literally fall into the lion’s den. Then, fight or flight will be energised in the way it is designed and you will begin to understand. GAD sufferers can be in the lion’s den to some degree every day of their lives.

The other major problem is the idea that anxiety is a single emotion. Single emotions can be fairly straightforward to deal with. For example, if you get angry, you can walk around the block; count to ten; take a few deep breaths; find a punchbag. You can’t walk away from GAD, punch your way out of panic. If you could, we would all be doing it.

Anxiety is in fact a composite of emotions: fear, dread, despair, feelings of impending doom, feeling out of control, hopelessness, low mood, the list goes on. And the truth is, you cannot deal directly with that set of emotions. They are too complicated. You cannot single them out one by one and eliminate them. And the reason you can’t do that, is because anxiety is more than just a set of troublesome emotions.

We might be able to understand anxiety better, if we describe it as a state of affairs and then try and understand what makes up that state. As well as being a set of emotions, anxiety leads to a physical condition: stress hormones are released; tension levels rocket; symptoms emerge; our behaviours change.

Anxiety is also a psychological state of affairs: perspectives become distorted; our beliefs may become irrational; the truth may become blurred; thinking patterns change; our brain becomes involved; and we may even experience psychological symptoms such as depersonalisation or derealisation.

It is also quite difficult to define anxiety as it seems to lend itself to a number of definitions. Yes, it is a fight or flight disorder, but it is also a tension disorder. If tension levels were low or normal, we would not be anxious. We might describe it as a breakdown in communications. If we were communicating with our nervous system healthily we would not be anxious. An emotional disorder? Yes. A psychological disorder? Yes. A problem with focus? Yes.

All these different aspects/elements of GAD are what makes it tricky to deal with. In a very real sense, it is impossible to tackle them directly. The best way to deal with anxiety, is to approach it indirectly. We have to create an environment where anxiety cannot exist; where our emotions settle; where our psychology becomes more relaxed; where tension levels fall. Recovery is about creating another state of affairs: a different mindset; managed thinking; healthy behaviours; understood emotions.

The good news is: we can in theory all do that. However, recovery is a progressive thing. We make changes gradually, one step at a time and at a manageable pace.

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