Anxiety: Lions and Tigers and Projects, Oh My!

Overwhelmed by Reading TasksEveryone gets worried at times: it’s normal to feel nervous when speaking in front of a large group or when waiting to ride the Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.   

Anxiety is a natural reaction caused by parts of the brain that helps us survive real dangers.  The amygdala and other parts of the limbic system trigger the “fight or flight” response in order to help us stay safe.  For example, when our ancestors the cave people saw a lion, a tiger, or a bear, they had to decide if they would (1) run away from it, (2) stay still and hope it couldn’t see them, or (3) fight it and eat it for dinner.

When Anxiety Becomes a Problem

Sometimes, this fight or flight response can happen when we experience a situation that might feel dangerous but it’s really not.  These days, instead of lions, and tigers, and bears, we have projects, and tests, and taxes to worry about.  For example, when your teenager has to complete an important project for school, she might snap at you (fight) or avoid completing the task by procrastinating (flight).  When your kindergartener is afraid to be away from you, he might either have a temper tantrum, hide from you, or be unusually slow getting ready to leave for school.  Some of you may even procrastinate until the last-minute when thinking about the dangers involved in completing your taxes.

Anxiety becomes a problem when the fight or flight response keeps us from doing things we want or need to do.  For example, some children have separation anxiety which keeps them from going to school every day, and some teens struggle with social anxiety which keeps them from going to events they would like to attend.  Some adults may even have trouble getting out of the house because of their anxieties.  Many are misdiagnosed because the symptoms of anxiety can include poor concentration.

Anxiety is a False Alarm

One way to think about anxiety is to see it as a false alarm.  When the fire alarm goes off in the house, at school, or at work, we are supposed to get out of the building and then firemen come and fight the fire.  Sometimes, these alarms might go off when there is no true danger because we overcooked dinner or because some overly curious boy pulled the alarm just to see what would happen.  Just like a false alarm, anxiety can feel extremely uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous or harmful to you if you learn to recognize the difference between a real alarm and a false alarm.  Because our fight or flight response is hard-wired into our brain, we can’t to get rid of the alarm or totally eliminate our worry.  We just want to better control it so it works well without scaring us, making us exhausted, distracting us from our work (or schoolwork), or otherwise keeping us from enjoying life.

If you or someone you care about struggles with anxiety, it is important to remember the following:

  • Anxiety is very common: nearly one in every ten children, teens, and adults has anxiety.

  • Anxiety is a normal human response: the feelings you feel when you are anxious are there to protect you not hurt you.

  • Symptoms of Anxiety overlap with symptoms of other mental health challenges including ADHD, Depression, and Mood Disorders so a thorough evaluation is needed before treatment.

  • Although you may think your anxious feelings will last forever, these feelings can and will eventually decrease with help.

  • Anxiety is highly responsive to research-based treatment.

Symptoms of Anxiety Can Improve with Research-based Treatment

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