According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 18.1% of adults in the United States are affected by an anxiety disorder of some kind – that’s about 40 million people. However, when allowing for errors in misdiagnosis or those who do not seek treatment for anxiety, this estimate rises quite a bit, to approximately 30% of Americans in the United States being affected by an anxiety disorder.
These numbers are already quite astounding, but when we look at the research conducted by Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), we see that over the past decade, 54% of those with reported anxiety are women, while 46% are men. Thus, we can conclude that this is a massive issue that is plaguing Americans in general, but for whatever reason, we are seeing that the issue is perhaps affecting women on a greater scale than it is men.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
An eastern philosopher is credited with a saying that I believe holds a great deal of wisdom – “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment.” – Unknown (widely thought to be Lao Tzu)
Obviously, there are multiple causes for depression in people, and biological concerns may play a huge part in that. However, when we find ourselves in a depressed mood because of the content of our thoughts, we may wonder if this is due to dwelling too often on the past, or struggling with a sense of hopelessness concerning the future; regardless, all we have in our current reality, is the present.
What then, is anxiety? When we are worried about what has not yet occurred – we are anxious. I want to differentiate something here because I do believe there is a lot of confusion regarding fear vs. anxiety.
Fear is an immediate emotional and physiological response to an imminent threat to either you or someone you care about. In contrast, anxiety is a perceived threat. They do go hand-in-hand together, with one or the other arriving on the scene first in varying degrees.
Here is the way I explain this to my clients – imagine that you and I are sitting in the counseling office, and all of a sudden, a giant grizzly bear comes charging through the office door, heading straight for us. What do you think a natural response would be? Fear. And a lot of it – very quickly, and without our needing to do anything to bring it about.
Fear is an emotion, a signal, a message for us – that we are in danger. It is a very useful emotion! Fear causes us to act and to do so quickly, in an effort to protect ourselves or someone else. When that grizzly bear comes charging in, science tells us that we are going to automatically assume a survival response – either fight the bear, run from the bear or freeze and hope that the bear does not harm us while doing so.
The interesting thing is that you and I may have different survival responses kick in, so while you may freeze and become physically paralyzed, I may quickly decide to throw myself out of the nearby window to escape the threat.
Now, because God has so brilliantly engineered our bodies, there are some unique things that are going to happen inside of us while all of this is going on. In an extremely fast series of events, once we interpret a threat of this nature, our heart rate is going to hit or exceed 100 beats per minute; we are going to engage the parasympathetic nervous system within us, our body will begin pumping adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine through us to prepare us to fight, run, or freeze.
Here’s the interesting part – when this has occurred and our brain has now received the message that we are in survival mode, there are parts of our prefrontal cortex that are going to begin becoming impaired because we do not need them as much now in survival mode, as we would need them regularly.
If we are being charged at by a grizzly bear, we do not need the ability to reach logic as easily, because we do not need to sit there and rationalize whether or not we can statistically fight a bear and survive, or if we can rationally jump out of a two-story window and not break certain bones, etc.
We also do not need to empathize with our attacker, so the area of our brain that enables us to reach empathy will also be impaired. I’m not willing to sacrifice one of my appendages because the salmon run has been lousy this year, and the animal lover in me feels compassion for the attacking bear.
When we are under attack, we need to be able to think quickly, creatively, and non-judgmentally. This makes perfect sense when we are discussing an attack by a grizzly bear, doesn’t it? However, the problem is that nowadays in our fast-paced, instantly gratified, success-driven, scheduled, deadline-centric culture, we are envisioning grizzly bear attacks in our day-to-day lives when they are not actually happening.
Suppose we are sitting in my counseling office and as far as anyone can objectively tell, we are safe and sound. However, we begin discussing certain events in your life, and your heart rate escalates to 100+ beats per minute, and your body begins to engage the parasympathetic nervous system – as though a grizzly bear has charged into the room, but there is no actual grizzly bear.
I am sure you can relate to this in some way, especially if you are able to think of a time when you entered into a conflict with your loved one, and your body began responding with the same survival response as it would in a grizzly attack because you have become emotionally flooded.
This is not helpful when you need to be able to reach logic in a conflict with someone you love, nor is it helpful when you likely want to empathize with your partner and at least try to understand where they’re coming from. Given that you are in an everyday situation and not in immediate danger, the response you are generating in your body is that of anxiety, as opposed to fear, because you are perceiving a threat that is not actually endangering you.
In this circumstance, you may find yourself physically and emotionally freezing, fleeing from your “attacker”, or finding the desire to now fight the one you love – same physiological response and emotional interpretation, but very different realities.
Now, I want you to think of a time that you were in actual danger; such as in a terrible car accident, natural disaster, etc. Did you notice afterward that you were completely emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted? Yes! It takes a lot for our bodies to recover from all of that extra internal activity that has gotten us through such an ordeal, so we can expect to be very tired in the days following the event.
Now I want you to think about how often you have seen a “grizzly bear” show up in your daily life (anxiety), and survey your level of energy. Is it easy for you to sleep for the majority of the day? Or at least feel as though you need to? It would be very natural for you to be exhausted if you are seeing grizzly bears show up every day in your life, and your body is going into survival mode when it was not created to do that but once in a blue moon for an actual life-threatening event.
Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
The symptoms of anxiety in women and also in men will largely be similar, however, what Robert Levenson, Ph. D., Dolf Zillman, Ph.D., and John Gottman, Ph.D. (source: The Gottman Institute) have discovered, is that because of biological differences among men and women, women are able to calm down more quickly, as their body requires less time to recover from cardiovascular stress.
Thus, when a woman engages immediately in deep-breathing techniques to re-oxygenate the bloodstream, she will be able to slow down her heartbeat more quickly than her male counterpart. The problem is, that most of us going through our day so quickly, that we are not taking full, deep breaths. We typically live off of very quick, short breaths – enough to just get us from one destination to another.
Our fast-paced culture has put us at a great disadvantage in this regard because if we now know that deep breathing exercises and allowing ourselves to shift our mind’s focus to the present moment of reality rather than drifting into yesterday or tomorrow is a natural anti-anxiety medication.
Because we do not make time to do this, we are more prone to less oxygen and therefore more worried thoughts than ever. We are not taking time to do a reality check and see if we can problem solve anything in this present moment, rather than trying to problem solve future-oriented issues that have yet to arrive. Dr. Tony Evans put it like this – “worrying is like paying interest on trouble before it is due.”
If you are reading this and still unclear as to whether or not you are experiencing anxiety, here are a few of the physical signs (source: verywellmind.com):
- Muscle pain and tension
- Sleep disturbances
- Tightness felt throughout the body, especially in the head, neck, jaw, and face
- Chest pain
- Ringing or pulsing in ears
- Excessive sweating
- Shaking and trembling
- Cold chills or hot flushes
- Accelerated heart rate
- Numbness or tingling
- Depersonalization and derealization
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling like you are going insane
- Dizziness or feeling faint
If any of these symptoms are resonating with you, please get in touch with a Seattle Christian Counselor so that we can help you sort through whatever is troubling you, and allow us to better equip you with techniques that will help you stay in the moment, engage in deep-breathing exercises, and ultimately unpack those worry thoughts that you are burdened with.
If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, He does not want you worrying about what tomorrow holds – He wants you living in the present.
I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… and why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or toil. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:25-34
The Scripture passage above means so much to me. Think about it – do the birds wake up every day with anxiety, wondering how they will ever get their nest finished? Where they will find the resources for the nest? What about getting themselves into a panic over finding a worm to eat?
No. Instead, they wake up every morning and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will find food, and they will find the supplies they need for that day. We are so much more valuable to God than the birds, my friends. The birds of the air being as magnificent as they are, are not created in His image – but you are.
If He promises to feed, shelter, and clothe the animals and plants of this earth – and they are not in His own image; they are not His own children – how much more is He concerned with providing all that you need today? Let us not be burdened when we have a loving Father who is so much more capable of providing good things for us than we could ever imagine.
I realize this is easier said than done, but with practice and more tools at your disposal, you can begin to take control of your anxiety and invite peace into your life, instead. God bless you today and every day.
“Contemplation”, Courtesy of Ben White, nsplash.com, CC0 License; “Upside Down”, Courtesy of Tanja Heffner, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Standing in a Bus”, Courtesy of Manki Kim, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Breathe”, Courtesy of Tim Goedhart, Unsplash.com, CC0 License