Where Anxiety Comes from and Where It All Goes Wrong

The effects of stress are well understood, but where does anxiety come from? How do we know that it’s time to be “anxious,” and where is the line between “feeling anxious” and “suffering from anxiety?” We sat down with clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD and Roger S. Gil, MAMFT, to find that line.

Anxiety

Dr. DeGroat explained that there are a number of psychological theories as to why anxiety exists. There’s the neurological (which we mentioned above), and the psychoanalytical, which describes anxiety as battle between the id, ego, and superego. In this battle, he explains, “anxiety serves as a danger signal to an individual’s ego and/or superego that an individual is at an elevated risk to act upon an unacceptable id impulse. In the face of this anxiety, an individual’s ego and/or superego respond by attempting to manage an individual’s id impulses through elevated means.” Essentially, anxiety is a warning sign that you’re about to do something you may not want to. There’s also the cognitive theory, which suggests that anxiety arises when a person’s cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns, make them see everything as a physical threat, whether it’s an actual physical danger, an annoying coworker, or a police officer on the side of the road. In behavioral theory, anxiety is a learned response due to exposure to frightening or stressful situations.

Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, it’s unhealthy when those instincts are turned on constantly. Your body’s stress response is something designed to be engaged when needed and disengaged; and constant anxiety keeps us alert and on edge all the time. Persistent anxiety, however, is a problem.

Gil explained that whether it’s caused by genetics or being brought up in an environment conducive to anxiety (as in, loud environments or parents and teachers who yell all the time), the problem emerges when your body and brain become “wired” to be on the lookout for potential threats that could come from any direction at any time, real or imagined. Anything that could cause an undesirable emotion, he explained, whether it’s fear, frustration, or doubt, could be a trigger for anxiety—and once you develop thinking patterns that reinforce every event in your life as a threat, it becomes a never-ending cycle.

Both gentlemen agreed that it’s an issue when you recognize that your anxiety doesn’t seem to go away, and you’re living with it on a daily basis. This is easier for some people than others though—if you’ve been suffering from anxiety for so long that it’s just part of your personal norm, you may not even recognize that it’s an issue, as Gil explains:

Many people have lived in an anxious state for so long that they don’t know any other feeling so they are unaware that they are suffering from persistent anxiety. Recognizing anxiety isn’t easy in these types of situations however identifying its red flags is a good way to start. Are you pessimistic about the most innocuous situations to the point where it keeps you from taking risks? Do you find your mind racing to what possible negative outcomes there could be? Do you immediately attribute some external circumstance to a positive outcome that could be seen as the result of your efforts? If your answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, then you may suffer from persistent anxiety.

For some people, anxiety is situational. It’s normal to feel nervous at the prospect of having to speak in public. It’s not normal to feel anxiety about having a mundane conversation with your barista. Situational anxiety is one of those things that we can only overcome by confronting it. Generalized anxiety is something that can only be coped with by trying to rewrite the pattern of thinking that elicits it.

Regardless of whether you’re living with anxiety or suffering from an anxiety related condition, there are ways to deal with and lessen anxiety’s impact. It starts with recognizing the effects of anxiety, and then learning the right ways to cope.

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