Is My Anxiety Normal?

Anxiety can range from simple worry to panic attacks. Marriage and family therapist, Jason Williams, explains what’s normal and what’s not. Follow his expert advice on how to keep your anxiety from getting out of control.

It seems we live in an age of anxiety: Mass shootings, natural disasters, child abductions, and doomsday predictions.

Appropriate vs. Inappropriate Levels of Anxiety

Almost everyone has experienced times of worry, stress, or even a sense of foreboding at one time or another. While this is a normal part of life, more severe and chronic anxiety is not. Severe, chronic anxiety is of course an important mental health concern that can become debilitating.

Anxiety disorders can range from simple worry to severe panic attacks.

Something to understand or know is that anxiety is not the enemy or the problem. Anxiety can be and generally is for most people a motivational force. It is often what gets us up and gets us going and helps us to pay attention to the important things that need to be addressed or taken care of in our lives.

How we perceive an event often determines the level of anxiety we may experience. It is important to be able to recognize or distinguish between “normal or appropriate levels of anxiety” and “abnormal or inappropriate levels of anxiety”.

Some questions a person may ask themselves that can be helpful: “Am I worrying about a problem or issue that can be solved, or is it something that can’t be changed or altered?”

Frequently anxiety is based out of what we call “worst case scenario thinking”. So a question to ask yourself is: What is the worst thing that could happen? Then ask, What could I do to cope if the worst thing did occur? Then ask, How likely is it that the worst case scenario actually will happen? If it isn’t very likely then ask, What is most likely to happen?

The Switch is ON or the switch is OFF

When ANXIETY is turned on in the body and mind the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. When it is turned OFF the the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, this is what helps us to calm down or return to a more normal state of functioning.

Physical symptoms to recognize when the Sympathetic nervous system is engaged or turned on: muscle tension, increased heart rate, shaking, or trembling, and shallow, rapid breathing.

Managing anxiety

It’s key to remember that we can’t be half anxious. Either the sympathetic nervous system is engaged or it’s not. One of the easiest and most successful things to focus on is to control the breath. Deliberately slow down breathing. This is commonly known as deep relaxation breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Another technique is call progressive muscle relaxation (tightening a muscle group: clenching the fist, holding it for a certain amount of time, and letting go of the tension and focusing on the relaxation response)

Cognitive techniques: Reduce or eliminate negative thoughts – replace them as much as possible with positive thoughts – a focus on gratitude is particularly powerful with this.
Write in a journal with a focus on what made your day better or how you were more successful in managing your anxiety during the day.
Tap into the power of positive affirmations (statements that you say aloud to yourself) : “I am in control of my mood and thoughts and what happens outside of me does not affect me a negative way.”

Most of successfully managing anxiety, hinges on successfully managing stress in our lives. Some cognitive techniques to manage stress include: Remember the FOUR A’s. AVOID, ALTER, ADAPT, and ACCEPT.

We really have two options. We can either change the situation or change our reaction to the situation.

AVOID: Learn how to say “no”,

Take control of your environment – If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off.

Pare down your to-do list – Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely.

ALTER: Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. Be willing to compromise. Be more assertive. Manage your time better. If you plan ahead and make sure you don’t overextend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you’re under.

ADAPT: Reframe problems. Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? Adjust your standards. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others. Focus on the positive.

ACCEPT: Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Look for the upside.

Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments.

Jason Williams is a licensed marriage and family therapist. For more information visit

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