Demystifying anxiety: better understanding for better action

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In collaboration with Maude Villeneuve, Ph. D., Scientific Coordinator of the Relief Research Chair in Mental Health, Self-Management and Work (powered by Beneva).

Anxiety is a constant companion in modern daily life. While everyone can experience it from time to time, for some it becomes invasive and locks them into a full-blown emotional tailspin. If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Anxiety is a widespread mental health issue that affects millions of people around the world.

Did you know?

  • In 2021, more than 3.4 million Canadians aged 12 and up (10.4%) were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.1
  • The percentage of Canadians aged 15 and up who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder doubled between 2012 and 2022, increasing from 2.6% to 5.2%.2
  • Women, youth (15-30 years) and First Nations members are significantly more affected by anxiety disorders than the rest of the population.1, 3

Anxiety 101

Everyone experiences anxiety. It’s how we are capable of anticipating a future problem.

Anxiety can occur as soon as the outcome of a situation is unknown. A job interview, a first date or the start of a new course are all events where it’s hard to exactly predict what the outcome of our efforts will be. 

Anxiety can motivate us to be better prepared for these situations. It’s healthy in small doses and can help us to function well and evolve within our society.

However, for some people anxiety becomes pervasive, chronic or even debilitating. In this context, it really affects well-being and can interfere with their personal and professional life. We’ll explore this side of anxiety in depth to unveil its various forms, symptoms, best strategies for adapting to it and preventing the most harmful consequences. And, most importantly, when it’s time to seek the help of a health care professional.

From anxiety to anxiety disorder

Officially, anxiety is defined as a normal reaction to stress. It can alert us to danger and help us be vigilant.  It’s the body’s natural response to situations perceived as threatening for our physical or mental health, whether these risks are real or imagined.

Anxiety disorders are different from natural feelings of nervousness or anxiety. They involve excessive, even paralyzing fear or concern. People who suffer from anxiety disorders try to avoid any circumstances that could trigger or aggravate their symptoms.

Generally speaking, for an anxiety disorder to be diagnosed, the fear or anxiety has to be disproportionate to the situation and interfere with your ability to function normally. For example, people who suffer from severe agoraphobia (fear of large spaces) can’t leave their home, which can severely limit their personal and professional lives.

The different faces of anxiety

Anxiety disorders can take many forms. It’s important to distinguish them so you can effectively deal with the situation at hand.4 The most common forms include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This disorder is characterized by constant and excessive worry about a wide range of daily life events or issues, even the most mundane. Sufferers tend to anticipate a disaster around every corner and have a hard time controlling their fears. It often revolves around the most trivial things, such as household chores, car repairs or making an appointment.
  • Panic disorder: The main symptom of a panic disorder is repeated panic attacks, an overwhelming mix of bodily and mental distress. These attacks are sudden, intense and also accompanied by physical symptoms like palpitations, sweats, tremors, chest pressure and intense fear. Since these symptoms can be so severe, some people experiencing a panic attack may believe they’re having a heart attack and go the ER. Panic attacks can be anticipated, for example, in reaction to a stressful event, or unexpected when they can occur for no apparent reason.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Sufferers are incredibly apprehensive about being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected or scorned during social interactions. Also called social phobia, this disorder appears as an intense and irrational fear of social situations, public performance or interactions with others. People with this disorder often avoid such situations at all costs or endure them with great difficulty. Performance anxiety (also known as stage fright) is a form of social anxiety.
  • Specific phobias: A specific phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, event or activity that is not harmful in itself. Victims know their fear is unreasonable but they are unable to overcome it. These fears cause such distress that sufferers will avoid being exposed to their phobia at all costs. They end up denying themselves career opportunities (fear of public speaking), travel (fear of flying or transportation) or even taking the elevator (fear of confined spaces).

What are the symptoms?

They vary from one person to another and depending on the type of anxiety. However, here are some common symptoms:

  • muscle tension and contraction
  • nervousness and restlessness
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • insomnia or disturbed sleep
  • heart palpitations
  • excessive sweating
  • tremors
  • nausea or stomach aches
  • sense of impending danger
  • avoidance of dreaded situations

Some self-management strategies to know about...

There are several coping strategies when dealing with anxiety that can help to effectively manage it. The following are some ideas identified by a scientific team that are based on the experiences of people living with anxiety or mood disorders:5

  • To improve your daily functioning: learn how to manage stress through techniques like planning, time management and keeping busy with activities you enjoy in order to avoid dwelling on your fears.
  • To face your fears: recognize your thoughts, emotions and behaviours that cause anxiety, do research on anxiety disorders, seek help, be attentive to your symptoms.
  • To take care of your physical health: exercise, practice deep breathing, try meditation techniques and mindfulness exercises.
  • To maintain your social relationships: surround yourself with people who make you feel good, seek support from those around you when dealing with stressful situations, play a part in the well-being of others (including animals) around you.
  • To rekindle your hope and power: live in the moment, use humour, respect your own rhythm and limits, and assert yourself when a situation exceeds your current capabilities.
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When should you ask for help?

Although self-management strategies can be useful to control light to moderate anxiety, it’s important to recognize when it’s time to seek help from a health care professional. Here are some telltale signs that it’s time for a consultation:

  • Your anxiety is interfering with your daily life, whether it significantly affects your ability to work, study, maintain relationships or perform routine tasks.
  • You’ve tried various self-management strategies but anxiety still remains.
  • Your symptoms worsen over time or become more regular.
  • You turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to manage your anxiety.
  • You have negative or suicidal thoughts. It’s imperative that you immediately consult a health care professional or call the 988 emergency help line.

In brief

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. But it can have a serious impact on daily life when it becomes excessive and chronic. It has various forms, each with its own specific symptoms, and it’s important to be able to recognize when it’s time to reach out for help. With the proper treatment, it is possible to manage and overcome anxiety to regain a balanced and fulfilling personal and professional life.