What is this terrible feeling? Anxiety 101

What is anxiety? And how does it differ from hard-to-avoid moments of stress?

Monika Warzecha 5 minute read March 31, 2021

Anxiety is a mental health issue that can have physical symptoms. Getty

COVID-19 cases are up in your region. You can’t sleep and you feel a constant tightness in your chest. You have no appetite and your stomach feels off. Could it be the coronavirus? A heart attack? Or is it anxiety?

The pandemic, with its countless uncertainties and dangers, its terror and tedium, has introduced a number of people to the world of anxiety. Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) has repeatedly checked in with Canadians throughout the pandemic. According to its fifth and most recent poll, conducted in February, the number of people with self-reported and diagnosed feelings of anxiety and depression has reached its highest point: 25 per cent of Canadians surveyed are experiencing anxiety, while 17 per cent are experiencing depression.

But what is anxiety? And how does it differ from hard-to-avoid moments of stress? Here’s a look at symptoms, disorders and getting help:

What it feels like

Anxiety is a part of life. Most people might feel anxious over the results of a medical test, for example. But sometimes that knot-in-your-stomach feeling gets out of hand and you might feel a number of physical symptoms that go beyond simply getting sweaty palms before a job interview.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), acute anxiety can manifest in “heart pounding; shortness of breath; sweating; shaking; nausea; dizziness; chest pain or tightness; numbness or tingling sensations.” (You might be making a dash for the bathroom frequently as well). It can also take a toll on your thinking, giving you a sense of lingering dread that something bad might happen or that you might lose control. Some people with anxiety also report experiencing racing thoughts. According to Mental Health America, that can mean your mind might feel like it’s stuck on an endless loop, fixating on whatever is making you anxious.

Fight or flight

Humans may be at the top of the food chain, but we’re still hardwired to keep an eye out for major threats. Anxiety often triggers a “fight or flight” sensation. In other words, anxiety can be useful if you need that physiological kick to fight off a wolf in the woods or run for cover. But it’s less helpful when you’re lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling.

CAMH says that it’s important to remember anxiety is on a continuum: some days you might feel a prick of nervousness, while other times it can be more problematic; “it can vary in frequency from occasional distress to constant unease.”

When is it a disorder?

Health Canada characterizes anxiety disorders as driven “by excessive and persistent feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and even fear.” According to Anxiety Canada, different disorders have common symptoms in adults that can be grouped into four main areas: physical responses, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Anxiety disorders can lead to major disruptions in daily life, and can “interrupt or even stop adults from participating in a variety of experiences such as attending higher education, pursuing meaningful work, joining social, athletic or recreational clubs, being in relationships, and more.”

There are number of different disorders related to anxiety such as obsessive compulsive disorder or panic disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for a period of at least six months, about a number of events or activities” and features “difficulty in controlling worry and at least three associated physical symptoms (e.g., muscle tension, sleep difficulties, trouble concentrating).” Symptoms can differ between the different disorders and some people can experience overlap with other mood disorders, such as depression.


It’s pretty common

Mood disorders such as anxiety are fairly common, even before COVID-19 upended daily life. According to Health Canada, in 2013 an estimated 3 million Canadians, or 11.6 per cent of those aged 18 years or older, reported that they had a mood and/or anxiety disorder.

What you can do

CAMH recommends seeing your doctor if the anxiety is “frequent, intense, severe and prolonged, causing constant unease and distress.” And if the anxiety is “excessive, causes you distress and/or interferes with your daily activities,” getting in touch with a mental health professional is suggested.

Depending on symptoms and severity, a doctor or mental health professional might have different suggestions for treatment. One popular tool is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but this form of talk therapy can help some people mange their anxiety. The Mayo Clinic describes it as a structured way to become more “aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.”

For people who are experiencing less severe forms of anxiety, relaxation techniques can help. And, based on MHRC polling, it appears that the great outdoors can help. According to its polling, two-fifths of Canadians said that getting outside had a positive impact on their mental health, even more so that indoor activities.

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