The Two Faces of Anxiety

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The presence of unpredictability and uncertainty provoke anxiety pretty automatically in most of us. Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the U.S., affecting about 18%–40 million–of adult Americans. Adults aren’t the only sufferers. Children and young adults can also deal with life stressors. The pressure to do well in school, get along with friends and succeed in sports. Not to mention that students applying to college, preparing for finals or entering a brutally tough job market have as many reasons to be anxious as their parents and grandparents do.

Excess stress hormones wear on the body, nipping away at the DNA that keeps cells dividing and long-lived, constricting the blood vessels and causing blood pressure to rise. Even the immune system is affected, as white blood cells that normally patrol for bacteria and viruses aren’t produced at normal, disease-fighting levels. It’s for these reasons that anxiety and stress have been linked to heart attacks, strokes, immune disorders, obesity, infertility and more.

That’s not to say all anxiety is all bad. In just the right amounts, the hormones that drive anxiety can be powerful stimulants, causing the senses to function at their sharpest. Psychologists have proven a relationship between stress and performance. As the tension and worry that accompany a performance rise so does the quality of that performance, up to a certain point. The key isn’t not to feel anxious; it’s to learn ways to manage that experience. Anxiety itself is neither helpful nor hurtful; it is our response to our anxiety that is helpful or hurtful.

So it would seem, as with most things, that managing our stress and stressful responses becomes a bit of a balancing act. For all the suffering anxiety causes, the fact is, the human race would not be better off without it–and we might not be here at all. At its core, anxiety is a reaction, an arousal to a stimulus that we perceive as dangerous or threatening. The fabled saber-toothed tiger springs at the primitive human, and the human reacts with a biological red alert, bypassing the relatively time-consuming thinking centers in the brain in favor of a shortcut directly to the deeper-seated hypothalamus. This awakens the nervous system to release hormones that instantly rev up heart rate and respiration, feeding fresh blood and oxygen to the muscles, which need the boost to carry the human as quickly and as far away from the danger as possible.

The problem with all this is that our primitive biological systems have not quite kept up with the modern world and aren’t terribly good at distinguishing between a jungle full of killer cats and a conference room full of nothing but other people. If we can’t make the distinction, terror can quickly consume us in harmless circumstances. There are constant, subtle worries and pressures that grind at us every day, sometimes leaving us staring at the ceiling deep into the night. This can lead to feelings of sheer overload.

The Worry is supposed to be Step 1 of problem-solving, but it can be problem-generating instead. If it gets going too long, it actually overrides your ability to problem-solve. When we are anxious, our adrenal gland releases over 30 hormones into our blood stream, all designed to get the body’s respiratory and cardiac systems fired up. Principal among these chemicals is cortisol, commonly called the stress hormone, which does most of the cellular damage when it hangs around in the body too long.

If you determine that your responses to the daily stressors present in your life have become problematic, fortunately, therapy has proven to be a very effective way to address this issue. Therapy can increase our coping strategies as well as improve the way you feel about those things that are unpredictable and out of our control. If you perceive you can cope, you will not feel as stressed.

A version of this article appeared in Time Magazine Online December 5, 2011, with the headline: The Two Faces of Anxiety

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