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Anxiety is part of the body’s natural defense system. It takes over when you’re threatened and doesn’t let up until you’re safe again. While you’re in this state, you feel strong emotions such as fear, and physical sensations such as a pounding heartbeat. These feelings make you want to react to the threat. An anxiety response is normal in many situations. But when you have an anxiety disorder, the same response can occur at the wrong times.
Anxiety is like an alarm bell in your brain. When you’re threatened, the alarm goes off and tells your body to protect you. This is part of the same “fight or flight” response that helped our early ancestors survive. It made them react quickly to physical threats such as wild animals. Today, you may experience adaptive (healthy) anxiety:
When you’re in danger: Anxiety prompts you to run out of a burning building, or to swerve while driving to avoid hitting another car. In theses cases, the anxiety response makes you react quickly to protect yourself.
When you need to succeed: You may feel anxious when you open an overdue bill, study for a test, or prepare to give a speech. In these situations, the anxiety response helps you focus on the task at hand so you do a better job.
With an anxiety disorder, your body has the response described above, but in inappropriate ways. The response a person has depends on the anxiety disorder he or she has. With some disorders, the anxiety is way out of proportion to the threat that triggers it. With others, anxiety may occur even when there isn’t a clear threat or trigger.
Some people are more prone to persistent anxiety than others. It tends to run in families, and it affects more younger people than older people. But no age, race, or gender is immune to anxiety problems.
At certain times, people with anxiety may have:
Muscle tension or pain
Shaking or trembling
Loss of energy
Cold, clammy hands
The good news is that the anxiety that’s disrupting your life can be treated. Working with your doctor or other healthcare provider, you can develop skills to help you cope with anxiety. You can also gain the perspective you need to overcome your fears. Note: Good sources of support or guidance can be found at your local hospital, mental health clinic, or an employee assistance program.
If anxiety is wearing you down, here are some things you can do to cope:
Keep in mind that you can’t control everything about a situation. Change what you can and let the rest take its course.
Exercise—it’s a great way to relieve tension and help your body feel relaxed.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can make anxiety symptoms worse.
Fight the temptation to turn to alcohol or unprescribed drugs for relief. They only make things worse in the long run.