A straight-forward guide about anxiety and how to manage it

If we had to guess, you’re no stranger to anxiety. You’ve heard, read, and talked about it — more importantly, you’ve probably experienced it firsthand. But few of us truly understand what anxiety is or how to deal with it. And even fewer know the difference between day-to-day anxiety and clinical anxiety disorders.

Cue Thriveworks. We’re here to give it to you straight. You’re reading the start to a practical guide that will help you finally understand what anxiety is and, more importantly, what to do about it. Below, we offer candid answers to the most common questions about anxiety and real tips for managing it. Read our guide in full or jump to the sections you’re most interested in. Ultimately, it’s all about you. Whatever journey you take, we hope you find it helpful.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety, a natural stress response, is intense fear or worry about the future. You might feel anxious — or scared, uneasy, tense — before giving a major presentation at work, while waiting for test results from the doctor, or after receiving a text from your significant other that says, “We need to talk” (oof, that never feels good). The anxiety comes and goes with the high-stress situation.

What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety?

On top of fear and worry, symptoms of anxiety include:

  • A sense of impending danger
  • Nerves and restlessness
  • Struggling to focus
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling tired
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Increased heart rate

You might experience all of the above symptoms or just a few. Think about it: We’re all different. That means anxiety can look and feel different from one person to the next, too.

Is Anxiety Helpful or Harmful?

Anxiety can be both helpful and harmful. In the former case, it can bring awareness to an unhealthy situation that needs to be adjusted. For example, a constant state of anxiety about work indicates something in your work-life is off balance — you may work too much, have a demanding boss, or simply hate your job. Once you realize there is a problem (thanks for the heads up, anxiety) and identify it, you can take the right actions to solve it.

On the other hand, anxiety can also be harmful. Let’s revisit the example above. Your constant state of work anxiety means enduring perpetual fear and worry until you fix the problem. These feelings of anxiety are uncomfortable and can negatively affect your life; for example, making it difficult to sleep at night or enjoy a night out with your friends.

How Can I Manage My Anxiety?

A piece of good news is that there are many effective ways to manage your anxiety. Before you skim the list below and write this advice off as “basic” or overplayed, hear us out: The reason these are so widely discussed is that they actually work.

Now, the problem is that the person we’re talking to or the article we’re reading doesn’t always do a great job of explaining how it works or, perhaps more importantly, how you can apply the strategy to your own life. But we do. Here are a few tips for managing your anxiety:

  1. Learn what events or circumstances trigger anxiety. A huge key to better managing your anxiety is identifying what makes you feel anxious in the first place. For some of us, there’s a gamut of situations — for others, there are very clear circumstances that trigger thoughts and feelings of anxiety. In either case, just start paying attention. Once you understand what causes your anxiety, you can better prepare for anxiety-inducing situations.
  2. Challenge your thoughts. Remember: Anxiety is fear or worry about the future. So, another effective strategy for managing or, better yet,  alleviating your anxiety is challenging those negative thoughts. Here’s an example: You start to feel uneasy the night before a big work presentation. Soon enough, your stomach starts to flip — right on schedule. At moments like this, dig into the stories you’re telling yourself that might be contributing to your anxiety, like, “What if I forget my entire presentation,” or, “I know my face is going to turn red and I’ll probably sweat through my shirt and everybody will laugh at me.”If you’ve prepared for your presentation, remind yourself of that: “I’m ready for this presentation, and I’ll do my best.” And if you do tend to turn red and sweaty when you’re public speaking, don’t sweat it (get it). This is normal — and chances are, nobody else will notice. If they do, they definitely won’t laugh at you. That’d be embarrassing for them.
  3. Start meditating. I know, the word “meditation” is a big turnoff for some — but again, it’s a truly helpful practice when it comes to managing anxiety. Now, you don’t have to sit criss-cross applesauce on the floor to meditate (unless you want to). The only requirement is that you do nothing. Yes, you read that right. Stop petting your cat. Stop biting your nails. Stop fidgeting. Stop thinking about your to-do list. Stop worrying about making it to work on time. Stop doing. Stop thinking. Easier said than done, but you will get better at it over time. The primary goal here is to quiet your mind, which will free you from those anxious thoughts.
  4. Exercise. This might be another turnoff, but like meditating, exercising comes with enormous benefits — one being its ability to reduce anxiety. When you’re feeling anxious, perform your favorite form of exercise. For some, that might mean going for a run or hitting the gym. For others, that might mean walking the dog or doing yoga in the living room. The key to unlocking the benefits of exercise is to engage in a form of exercise you actually enjoy.
  5. Journal. What do we have here? Another word that many are probably sick of hearing. Not to sound like a broken record, but journaling is another truly beneficial practice for managing anxiety and difficult emotions alike. When you’ve had an anxiety-ridden day or even the moment you start feeling anxious, take out your journal and write down those thoughts. This does a couple of main things. First, it allows you to vent about those troubling thoughts and feelings. It’s like talking to a friend. Second, it helps you better understand why you feel anxious or what your anxiety is centered around.

You don’t have to engage in all of these practices to manage your anxiety. Some might work well for you and others might not. Give them each a try, figure out what works and what you enjoy, and then incorporate them into your daily or weekly routine.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Is anxiety a mental illness? It can become one. An anxiety disorder is when anxiety becomes persistent, excessive, and interferes with day-to-day functioning. Fear and worry affect your work performance, your relationships, and other important areas of your life in a big way. These feelings don’t go away and may worsen over time without treatment.

Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable, with therapy and/or medication. It is also important to note that they are the most common mental health conditions in the US, as (19.1%) have an anxiety disorder. That’s right — if you have an anxiety disorder, you’re far from alone.

How Many Anxiety Disorders Are There? What Are They?

In talking about clinical anxiety, there are actually nine different anxiety disorders. The list of anxiety disorders includes:

  1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is excessive worry about everyday life events. People with GAD tend to expect the worst and fixate on the disaster that is surely about to strike.
  2. Social anxiety disorder (or social phobia) is irrational anxiety in social situations. Common symptoms include self-consciousness, embarrassment, and intense fear of being judged when interacting with others, or complete avoidance of social interactions.
  3. Panic disorder is marked by panic attacks, or sudden feelings of terror and loss of control. Physical symptoms are also common, which include chest pain, shortness of breath, and an increased heart rate.
  4. Agoraphobia is an intense fear and avoidance of places or situations that could make the individual feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. The majority of people with agoraphobia develop the condition after having a panic attack.
  5. Separation anxiety is excessive worry or fear when away from a specific person, pet, or place. It is most common among children who feel scared when separated from their parents, but it can also occur among teens and adults.
  6. Phobias are intense fears of a specific situation or thing, such as flying, heights, or spiders. People with phobias avoid ordinary places and activities to avoid confronting their fear.
  7. Selective mutism is a form of social anxiety where a person isn’t able to speak. This occurs in social situations, like at work, school, or when around unfamiliar people.
  8. Substance- or medication-induced anxiety disorder occurs when severe anxiety is caused by the use of or withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.
  9. Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition is diagnosed when severe anxiety is caused by another medical condition, such as congestive heart failure or pneumonia.

Which Anxiety Disorder Is Most Common?

Phobias are the most common anxiety disorder in the US, affecting 19 million adults or 8.7% of the population. A close second is social anxiety disorder, affecting 15 million adults or 6.8% of the population. Coming in third is GAD, affecting 6.8 million adults or 3.1% of the population.

What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety can be caused by any stressful event or situation. We listed a few examples earlier — it’s common to feel anxious before giving a work presentation, while waiting for test results from your doctor, or after receiving a worrisome text message. But you might also feel anxious before getting on a plane, during a presidential election, after the loss of a loved one, and so on.

Outside of the events that trigger your body’s natural stress response, certain medications can cause anxiety as can alcohol and other drugs.

Who Is at Risk of Developing an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, come with certain risk factors, including:

  • Personality type: Certain personalities — specifically type A personalities — are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. These individuals are highly organized, ambitious, and often described as “workaholics.” When stressed and overwhelmed, people with type A personalities typically engage in unhelpful coping mechanisms like procrastination or — on the flip side of the coin — staying up late to get something done. 
  • Genetics: Others are more prone to anxiety disorders simply because it runs in their family. If your family has a history of GAD, social phobia, or another anxiety disorder, you’re at a higher risk.
  • Other mental health conditions: You might also be more susceptible to anxiety disorders if you have another mental health condition, like depression, and vice versa. In this case, it’s a harmful cycle that goes both ways: People with depression often experience anxious thoughts and feelings, and people with anxiety disorders often feel hopeless and depressed as a result of their relentless thoughts.

The above can be applied to the whole gamut of anxiety disorders listed earlier. There are, though, also specific risk factors for each disorder. For example, experiencing super stressful life events such as the death of a loved one puts one at greater risk of developing agoraphobia. And women specifically are twice as likely to develop several anxiety disorders: GAD, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

Can I Prevent an Anxiety Disorder?

Is experiencing anxiety a common issue? Yes. And while you can’t completely prevent anxiety disorders, you can certainly take steps to reduce or better manage your anxiety. Refer to our section above titled, “How Can I Manage My Anxiety?” — we share a few effective strategies: identifying anxiety triggers, challenging negative thinking, meditating, exercising, and journaling.

How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?

If there’s anything you take from this guide, we hope it’s this: Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. There are two main forms of anxiety treatment:

  • Therapy: Anxiety therapy involves talking to a therapist about your anxiety symptoms, potential causes, and more. They can help you better understand and manage it. The most common and effective form of therapy for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is typically short-term and involves learning specific skills for reducing your unique anxiety symptoms and getting back to normal life. A subcategory of CBT is exposure therapy, which is also highly effective and involves exposure to the event or object that causes your anxiety. The goal here is to gain confidence in those situations or around the given object, lessening your anxiety in the process and improving your ability to manage it. 
  • Medication: Medication, like anti-anxiety medication and certain antidepressants, can also be used to treat anxiety and helps to alleviate symptoms. Oftentimes, people with anxiety will take medication (depending on the type and severity of their anxiety) in conjunction with attending therapy. Once they make progress with their therapist, they may go off of medication, as they’re better able to manage their anxiety with the techniques they learned in therapy.

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Will Anxiety Eventually Go Away?

While anxiety isn’t curable, it is treatable and manageable. If you’re struggling with anxiety, be it the normal day-to-day anxiety or a suspected anxiety disorder, reach out to a medical professional to talk through the treatment options above. Through therapy and/or medication, plus our anxiety management tips, you can cope with and lessen your anxiety — what was once a major impediment in your day can shrink into the background.

Table of contents

What Is Anxiety?

What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety?

Is Anxiety Helpful or Harmful?

How Can I Manage My Anxiety?

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

How Many Anxiety Disorders Are There? What Are They?

Which Anxiety Disorder Is Most Common?

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  • Clinical reviewer
  • Writer
Emily Simonian

Emily Simonian, M.A., LMFT

Emily Simonian is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) who has direct training and experience working with family and relationship issues, as well as working with individuals. She also specializes in treating stress/anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, as well as self-esteem issues and general self-improvement goals.

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Head of Content at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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