Mental Health: Are anxiety symptoms friend or foe?

Here's what you need to know about recognising the basics of anxiety

By Geraldine Naidoo

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Published: Tue 9 Jul 2024, 2:15 PM

Last updated: Tue 9 Jul 2024, 2:16 PM

The symptoms of anxiety can often look and feel just like “everyday stress”. Identifying the subtle yet significant differences is vital for addressing anxiety effectively, to prevent it from overwhelming daily life.

Anxiety, according to author Britt Frank, is far more than excessive worrying. It is a complex interplay of emotional and physiological responses to real/perceived threats.


Frank explains that anxiety is the brain's way of signalling potential danger, prompting the body to react/respond in a protective way.

The Hidden Triggers of Anxiety in Everyday Life

Anxiety functions as an internal alarm system and is meant to prepare us for danger.


While this response is fundamental in critical situations, it can become overwhelming and debilitating when triggered by mundane events.

Author and psychotherapist Bessel van der Kolk explains that mundane events can trigger anxiety because they often act as subtle reminders of past traumatic experiences. According to van der Kolk, our brains and bodies store memories of trauma, and everyday occurrences can unconsciously bring these memories to the surface, causing a deeply rooted stress response.

For instance, a simple argument or a stressful day at work might evoke feelings of helplessness similar to those experienced during a previous traumatic event, leading to heightened anxiety, which may not be understood in the moment

This reaction occurs because trauma fundamentally alters the brain and the body’s stress response system, making you more susceptible to anxiety even in non-threatening situations.

Trauma's Shadow in the Realm of Anxiety

Emotionally traumatic experiences play a pivotal role in the development and persistence of anxiety disorders.

As Gabor Maté, MD eloquently states, "Trauma is not what happens to you,(the event) but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you (your internal response)." This internalised impact of trauma often manifests as chronic anxiety, perpetuating a cycle of fear and distress.

Bessel van der Kolk further explains that "the body keeps the score," meaning that traumatic experiences are imprinted on both the mind and body, leading to heightened emotional/physical sensitivity to stress and anxiety triggers.

Perception vs. Reality: How Our Minds Shape Anxiety

The mind's reaction to perceived threats can be as intense as its response to actual dangers, thus generating a state of continuous alertness and stress.

The research shows that perceived stress triggers the same physical responses as real stressors. This understanding highlights the importance of managing our perceptions and thoughts.

By recognising the power of perception, we can develop strategies to reframe our thinking and reduce anxiety's impact on our well-being.

Understanding the Difference: Hallmarks of Anxiety

Persistent Worrying and Restlessness

Unlike the occasional concerns we all experience, anxiety-related worry is incessant, and often irrational. Compulsive obsessing over your troubles makes them seem larger and more persistent, making it difficult for you to relax or even sit still.

Fatigue and Difficulty Concentrating

The constant state of alertness and worry depletes energy reserves, leaving you feeling constantly tired. Alongside this fatigue, many people struggle with concentrating. Their minds may race with thoughts, making it hard to focus on tasks at hand.

Irritability and Muscle Tension

The emotional strain of ongoing worry can make you more easily agitated or prone to frustration, often manifesting physically as muscle tension. The muscles may feel tight, sore, or stiff, contributing to overall discomfort.

Sleep Disturbances

Night time worries and a racing mind can keep you awake, leading to sleep disturbances that include: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or lack of restful sleep. As a matter of survival, the brain will keep you awake to solve unresolved issues. A lack of sleep further keeps you on edge, exacerbating anxiety.

The Overwhelm-Anxiety Connection

If you consistently feel like you are drowning then it’s probably anxiety, which often presents as a flood of simultaneous stressors that the mind struggles to process: persistent worry, difficulty concentrating, and a pervasive sense of being unable to cope. Recognising the signs of being overwhelmed and implementing coping strategies, can significantly alleviate anxiety's grip.

Understanding Your Own Anxiety

Now that you understand the basics, it is critical to acknowledge that anxiety is actually a friend, and not a foe:

Why is your body on high alert?

What is it trying to warn you about?

Recognising the symptoms, and investigating why you are anxious is a critical first step.

Switching Gears: The Subtle Benefits of Anxiety

Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic highlight that a healthy amount of anxiety can act as a built-in warning system, preparing us to react quickly to potential dangers and avoid harm. This survival response, deeply rooted in our evolution, helps us stay alert and enhances our survival instincts

Furthermore, Britt Frank explains that anxiety can serve as a critical signal, prompting us to reassess and realign aspects of our lives that might be off balance. This heightened awareness can potentially lead to necessary lifestyle changes, and significant personal growth.

Anxiety also has motivational benefits. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that moderate anxiety can improve performance, making us more diligent and prepared when facing challenges. This phenomenon is why athletes often perform better under slight pressure, which sharpens their focus and determination

Understanding these nuanced benefits of anxiety allows us to reframe it as a potentially positive force, guiding us toward greater self-awareness, preparedness, and personal development.

Seeking Help

In my experience as a Stress and Anxiety Specialist, successful anxiety treatments often require a combination of talk therapy, somatic(body) processing, trauma therapy, and in severe cases, medication.

The aim is not to band-aid, bypass or distract from the real, often uncomfortable origins, but to identify the roots of your anxiety.

Leverage yourself with the help of a qualified professional who will help you shine a torch on the scary “dark” unknown things that plague your subconscious or deep unconscious mind, and which show up dressed as anxiety.

Lets remove the stigma and encourage people to seek the help they need.

For support www.drgeraldine.com

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