as she stood in front of the class to give her report, Ricki could feel the sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Her wobbly knees and her flip-flopping stomach made it hard to concentrate. “Slow down, Ricki!” her teacher admonished. Ricki realized she had been racing through her report so she could get it over with and sit down again.
Normal anxiety? Sure–it takes practice to be able to get up in front of a group and speak, and most people feel nervous about it beforehand. Not only is that kind of stress normal, it’s helpful. Ricki’s stress can help her think more sharply and give her the extra burst of energy she needs to do a better job.
So what tips the scales from normal to high anxiety? In a nutshell, it’s anxiety that can’t be turned off, that is out of proportion to the problem, and that changes the way a person functions. Suppose Ricki’s anxiety had been so acute that she dropped the class so she wouldn’t have to do the oral presentation at all. Imagine she chose all her classes this way, avoiding the ones in which she had to speak. If Ricki’s anxiety was changing the way she ran her life, she should seek help from a therapist.
What Causes Anxiety?
When you feel fear, your body’s normal “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. That response is responsible for the burst of adrenaline that helped our ancestors run away from a predator. It’s what helps you get out of a burning house or take cover when you hear a sudden, loud noise. In these cases, fear is a realistic (and helpful) response to an actual threat.
So far, so good. But the fight-or-flight reaction can sometimes go into overdrive, sending you signals of anxiety or panic when it shouldn’t. People with generalized anxiety disorder worry continually, and often about things they can’t control. They are likely to fret over lots of “what if” scenarios. This is anxiety, not fear. The threat is imagined, not real.
For some people, the brain’s biochemistry is the cause; for others, it’s genetics (anxiety disorders tend to run in families). For still others, anxiety disorders can stem from life circumstances. Whatever the cause, it’s important to know that there are millions of people who suffer from anxiety-related disorders–many of them children and teens. With help, anxiety can be controlled and life can return to normal.
Pushing Through Panic
Now 27, Jamie Blyth remembers his first panic attack so vividly that he can tell you the date and time it happened. “But not the reason,” he says. “To this day I have no idea what triggered it.” He was a 19-year-old college student at the time, an outgoing guy who was always cooking up pranks and acting the part of class clown. “Suddenly, as I was talking with someone, I got hit with all the classic signs of a true panic attack,” Jamie says. “My heart was racing, I couldn’t breathe, my voice left me, and I had a feeling of suspended reality.”
The panic attacks continued, and Jamie learned that he suffered from social phobia–anxiety brought on from interacting with other people. He began avoiding situations he used to enjoy, such as parties. “I covered it up with friends. They knew I avoided certain things, but most people probably thought I was aloof. Inside, I was terrified,” Jamie now admits.
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), approximately 19 million Americans suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety, in which people worry constantly, is one of the most common. Obsessive-compulsive disorder–having obsessive thoughts and feeling the need to perform a ritual over and over again–is also more widespread than you might think. Sadly, most of the people who suffer do so in silence–they feel alone and helpless, and can’t imagine that there are others who feel the way they do.
It took several years, but Jamie gradually learned to face his fears and took the first steps to overcoming them. After college, he landed a job in sales. “Talk about walking into the fire!” he says. Those years of forcing himself to confront his fears and talk to people really paid off. Not only is Jamie now free of panic attacks, this past year he appeared on TV’s The Bachelorette and The Oprah Winfrey Show, discussing his anxiety-ridden years freely. His most important message is to not feel alone. “Most people with anxiety see themselves as hopeless and helpless. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
“A counselor will help you understand what you’re dealing with and get you to reframe your attitude,” Jamie explains. Relaxation techniques and role-play activities can help make real-life situations easier. Gradually, the therapist will get you to expose yourself to the things you’re afraid of. In some cases, anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications can also be useful.