Recognize and Manage Anxiety

by Jacklyn R. Leitzel and Brian J. Schurr, counselors in Penn College’s Counseling Services Office

Published August 1, 2018

Head with gears. Illustration by Deborah K. PetersFor many Americans, the experience of anxiety is becoming increasingly commonplace. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-third of all Americans (31.1 percent) will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime.

But there is hope! Anxiety is one of the most treatable mental health problems in our country, and many people suffer needlessly with these uncomfortable symptoms.

Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems
  • Relationship problems
  • Decreased productivity

Many people use the terms “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably; however, it is important to understand that stress and anxiety are not the same thing.

Stress is often a response to a particular situation. For instance, we may experience stress because we are feeling pressure to perform in our career. Stress is in many ways a normal reaction to life events, and it is not necessarily problematic. In reality, some stress can actually be motivating and may even help us to reach our optimal level of performance.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a maladaptive reaction to the stress in our life and rarely is productive. For instance, we may experience anxiety in the form of chronic and excessive worry about our work performance.

Although both stress and anxiety may have a negative impact on one’s health, anxiety can create more prolonged problems. Anxiety and chronic stress have been linked to illnesses such as heart disease, obesity and migraine headaches, to name a few.

Healthy stress management techniques can protect us against the negative consequences of stress and anxiety. These include:

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise and sleep)
  • Identifying and changing negative self-talk
  • Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques
  • Supportive social connections

When your symptoms begin to interfere significantly with daily activities, it may be time to seek professional help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the most effective form of therapy for treating anxiety disorders. This approach focuses on skill development, as well as identifying, challenging and changing the unhelpful thoughts that maintain anxiety. In addition, medications are sometimes used alone or in combination with therapy to relieve symptoms of anxiety.

Untreated anxiety can lead to unnecessary suffering, and often it may be difficult to know where to begin. A conversation with your primary care provider is often a good place to start. You may also want to consider visiting the American Psychology Association website for more information, as well as a list of psychologists in your area.