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What Is Anxiety?

Out of nowhere, my heart would start racing—I'd start sweating and my stomach would cinch up.

Anxiety is your mind and body's natural response to events that are threatening. The right amount of anxiety can help you, but too much anxiety can interfere with your life.

Some worry and anxiety is normal for everyone. But when anxiety is severe, lasts for several weeks and includes symptoms that keep you from doing things you usually would, it may be something to discuss with your health care professional.

Anxiety symptoms are real. They are not just in your head. They can be treated, and they are nothing to be ashamed of.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Worry
  • Fears
  • Thoughts that don't go away
  • Avoidance of people places or things
  • Compulsions
  • Restlessness
  • Aches, pains
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Faintness
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty concentrating

Fight or Flight

As long as humans have been on earth, when they have been confronted with threatening situations, their bodies have had automatic responses to prepare them to fight the threat or run away from it.

For example:

  • Increased alertness
  • Increased heart rate
  • More blood flowing in the muscles of the arms and legs, possibly causing shaking or jitters
  • Less blood flowing in the digestive system so more blood is available to the arms and legs, possibly causing dry mouth or abdominal discomfort
  • Dilated pupils (for better vision)
  • Constricted blood vessels in the skin and open sweat glands, leading to paleness or clamminess

In our brains, the hypothalamus, when stimulated, directs nerve cells to fire and starts a chemical release increasing adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol in the blood and causing the reactions listed above.

In people with depression, bipolar disorder and/or anxiety disorders, the fight or flight response may be stimulated more often and for longer periods of time than in people without these illnesses. This means that more things are perceived as threatening. An out-of-balance fight or flight response can cause a person to

  • Have a real physical reaction to everyday people, places or things
  • Believe danger is around every corner
  • Be convinced something terrible will happen if certain things aren't done a certain way
  • Feel constantly keyed-up and on-edge
  • Avoid everyday people, places or things in an effort to avoid the anxiety response

All of these things can interfere with people's lives so much that they aren't able to do things they would like to do and their relationships are strained or lost.

You are not alone.

DBSA asked web site visitors to take an anxiety survey in March 2005. More than 95% of the people, most of whom were diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, had experienced anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety can begin early in life for people with depression or bipolar disorder. More than half the people said they had experienced anxiety some time between birth and age 18. Even if you can't remember a time when you didn't feel worried or fearful, there are things you can do today to work toward a life that is not controlled by anxiety.

What's causing the anxiety?