Although anxiety and fear are two different things, constantly dealing with fear of uncertainty is something many people with anxiety experience regularly. And for the past six months — amid a global pandemic — almost nothing has been certain. It makes sense that we’re anxious about whether we, or our loved ones, will fall ill, but the uncertainty extends far beyond that, into questions regarding our employment, what to do about the upcoming school year and when (or whether) we’ll be able to see older relatives in person again.
For people like myself — who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder — the pandemic has provided us with a fresh batch of negative thought patterns and new ways to “catastrophise” everything. Of course there’s no “bright side” to all of this, but I have, on several occasions, thought about how complicated it must be for people who don’t typically live their lives under the crushing weight of anxiety. If this is all new for them, how can they tell the difference between regular old living-through-a-pandemic anxiety, or what might be a disorder? We spoke with several mental health experts about this, and here’s what we found out.
What is anxiety?
Just because you deal with anxiety — even on a semi-regular basis — doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety is a completely normal human emotion, and even has some benefits, says Dr. Pavan Madan, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry. “In a dangerous situation, it keeps us alert from threats and might save our lives,” he explains. “For an important situation, like a job interview, it keeps us aware of the magnitude of the issue and helps us prepare to show up at our best. This is all ‘normal’ and productive anxiety.”
So what exactly do we mean when we talk about anxiety? One definition, that comes from the American Psychological Association, notes that anxiety “is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” But, as the experts we spoke with note, there is a difference between experiencing the emotion of anxiety and having an anxiety disorder.
When does anxiety become an anxiety disorder?
In some cases, anxiety can cross the line between just being an emotion everyone experiences, to a disorder that could require some form of treatment. But where is that line? According to Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist, everyone has a “baseline” level of anxiety — a certain amount that they feel all the time — as well as “spikes” of anxiety, triggered by events or other stressors.
“Think of it as a plateau, with some mountain peaks,” he tells Lifehacker. “My experience has been that the higher the ‘plateau,’ the higher and more easily triggered the spikes will be. In other words, the higher the everyday baseline, the more intense and frequent, the event-triggered spikes will be.” Dimitriu says that looking at our own baseline anxiety can help us determine whether we’ve crossed into disorder territory.
Madan says that this distinction comes when your anxiety grows so excessive that it gets in the way of your everyday life. But again, if you’re some with a low baseline anxiety that suddenly spikes, it may feel as though it does get in the way of your life.
According to Dr. Moe Gelbart, a psychologist and director of practice development at Community Psychiatry, some potential signs you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder include:
- Thoughts becoming so overwhelming that they interfere with your ability to do your best.
- That the thoughts become obsessive and you’re unable to ignore them.
- That the behaviours become compulsive and something you’re unable to refrain from.
Paying attention to symptoms — both physical and psychological — can also help, Dimitriu says. These can include feeling on edge, irritability, fatigue, catastrophising and sleep disturbance. If it gets to the point where you’ve been experiencing these or other symptoms more often than not over a period of at least six months, Dimitriu says that it might be time to talk to a professional.
What role does our current reality play in all this?
We’re living in a time of extreme stress, so Dimitriu says that it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s anxiety is elevated and people are also increasingly depressed — but that most people will feel better as the situation improves. Once again, he suggests figuring out your baseline anxiety to help determine the severity of your current situation. Looking back at your history of anxiety and reactivity and the situations that have been triggering for you can provide clues.
“For people who have always been easily triggered, it is likely they will continue to have anxiety even after the current stressors have start to decrease,” Dimitriu explains. “This is not to say they will always be in a state of anxiety, but rather that they are easily triggered by events, and the current ones are quite significant. There will always be something to worry about — the degree to which we react and get thrown off course, is the variable.”
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What are some ways to help alleviate anxiety?
If you’ve already been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and are working with a mental health professional, then you probably already know what works best for you. But if you’re new to anxiety, there are a few coping mechanisms that might be useful. Unfortunately, there is no instant cure for anxiety of any level, so the experts’ recommendations are the usual stress-reducing techniques you’ve likely heard before. (But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth a shot right now!)
For example, Dimitriu suggests using meditation as a way to calm our thoughts, noting that most people are terrible meditators when they first start, so you should go in accepting that the practice is like a muscle that needs to be gradually strengthened. (Meditation doesn’t work for everyone, however, so consider working in guided sessions to start). He also recommends sticking to a regular sleep schedule and getting eight hours in each night, as well as vigorous exercise (the kind where you definitely need a shower after), spending more time outdoors, and being cognisant of the media you consume and avoiding potential triggers.
According to Gelbhart, there are also some basic behaviours and understandings which could help you deal with anxiety, including:
- Learning to control the things you can, and letting go of the things you have no control over.
- Learning how to live in the here and now, rather than looking into the future and catastrophising unnecessarily. This includes changing your “what if” feelings to “what is” statements.
- Avoiding caffeine, nicotine and the combination of both.
If it gets to the point where you think that you are experiencing severe anxiety — or still aren’t sure about it — the experts recommend making an appointment with a mental health professional who can assess your situation and provide potential treatment options.