Anxiety can be experienced in very diverse ways. Although our anxiety article discusses the general ways that anxiety works and how it can be felt in the body, mind, and emotions, many people are curious about specific forms of anxiety. When anxiety is very particular— that is, it seems to be activated only in specific settings, or when it has one or two very dominant characteristics, it can be useful to explore if these are connected to specific causes or pathways to healing. The following article offers an introduction to some common, specific forms of anxiety.
The popular picture of powerful anxiety is a person whose fears and worries leave them in paralysis, stuck in place, with difficulty managing the responsibilities of their roles: career, parent, partner, friend. But for those with “high functioning” anxiety, the picture on the surface is very different. For these people, who might also have traits in common with “people pleasers” and “perfectionists,” their anxiety propels them into high levels of functioning, performance, and relationship. For the casual observer, they may see someone who “has it together.”
High functioning anxiety is often rooted in specific fears or beliefs about the world. For example, we may believe that our value to other people is not intrinsic, but rather we are valuable because of what we do for them. This kind of belief can lead us to be very diligent in our tasks. This is, in many ways, a positive thing. However, because the motivation for this work is a sincere and powerful fear—a fear that if we ever stop working diligently our value will be lost—the work we do can become desperate and ultimately draining.
High functioning anxiety can involve a wide variety of experiences and sensations:
● Over performing
● Failure to set boundaries
● Conflict avoidance
● Suppressed anger
● Resentment and relationship decay
● Exhaustion and burnout
Healing occurs at multiple levels. On the surface, we can address the kind of behaviours that support and uphold our high functioning anxiety. For example, by learning to tolerate confrontation and conflict, to assert oneself, to set boundaries, or to prioritize the self as much as the other, we can mitigate the burnout, exhaustion, and resentment that high functioning anxiety can lead to. But in conjunction with this, it is important to deal with the underlying fear and worry.
Underneath high functioning anxiety is often a particular sense of self or a particular belief about what others want and need from us. By creating shifts in these identities, therapeutic conversation can help to dissolve the foundational beliefs that cause high functioning anxiety, people pleasing, and perfectionism.
Many people experience trouble sleeping, which takes a wide variety of forms. For some people it’s hard to fall asleep, for others it’s hard to stay asleep. Some people have negative associations with bedtime, other people find the quiet and aloneness of those hours in bed to be uncomfortable. Still others are troubled by nightmares. Because sleep is so essential to good health, it is worrying to just about everybody when typical sleep patterns are disrupted, regardless of the reason.
Perhaps the most typical sleep anxiety is also the most frustrating: the worry that I won’t get enough sleep, which creates my lack of sleep!
Whether it’s nightmares, bad sleep habits, insomnia, or something else, it can be worth talking to a Counsellor if you have sleep anxiety. It is often treatable, and because sleeplessness can be a contributing factor to more general feelings of anxiety, repairing disrupted sleep patterns can have a doubly positive effect.At first, any problem with sleep needs to take into account the elements of basic sleep hygiene:
● Sleeping in a comfortable, dark, quiet space
● Feeling safe
● Recognizing if there are specific fears that bedtime activates (including the fear of nightmares)
● Understanding how exercise, diet, and screen time/arousal levels influence sleep
Once these basic conditions for healthy sleep are met, therapeutic conversation with a Registered Clinical Counsellor can begin to look at what fears, worries, and other difficult feelings might underlie your personal sleep anxiety.
Although many parents and parents-to-be are familiar with the concept of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety is less commonly discussed. Nevertheless, postpartum anxiety is just as real and important to address as the parallel experience of depression.
Postpartum challenges are common and have similar causes:
● Significant hormonal change
● Major life transition
● New roles and responsibilities
Whereas depression leads to collapsed feelings, the problem of postpartum anxiety is the opposite: hyperactivation and hyperarousal. There can be a feeling that we can never turn “off.” Our minds race with possible problems and solutions and fear and worry become dominant. This can lead to a feeling of relentlessness in trying to create safety and relief from the anxiety.
Of course, many new parents will feel increased worry and low levels of anxiety. This is only natural considering the brand new life challenge in front of you, filled with new tasks, new responsibilities, and new challenges. Noticing the difference between these “ordinary” worries and postpartum anxiety isn’t always easy. Look out for difficulty sleeping due to worrying thoughts, as well as a high level of preoccupation. Also, look out for general signs of being overwhelmed. If little tasks which were once simple now feel completely overwhelming, it is probably a sign that some help would be useful.Anxiety is highly treatable, and postpartum anxiety is no exception. Some mothers are concerned about taking pharmaceuticals during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so it’s worth investigating if talk therapy with a registered clinical counsellor would be a worthwhile first step. By unpacking the sources of worry and fear, while also teaching tools and techniques for managing anxiety, talk therapy can help new parents get out from under the powerful feelings of postpartum anxiety.
Crippling anxiety is not a diagnostic or medical term, yet that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real meaning. When people talk about crippling anxiety, it is a way of describing the level of severity they are experiencing. The diversity of experience with respect to the severity of anxiety is enormous: what one person feels when they say they are “a bit anxious today” can be miles away from another person’s experience of crippling anxiety, and for that reason it can be a very useful term to help understand your own experience.
When we say that something is crippling, we are usually referring to it being “disabling”—the anxiousness has reached a level of severity in which our ability to manage the basic tasks of life has changed. For some people, crippling anxiety means that the symptoms of their anxiety have become completely overwhelming and preoccupying:
● Constant anxious thoughts
● Profound feelings of worry and fear
● A persistent sense of dread, often felt deep in the body
● Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
● Nightmares, or powerful emotional flashbacks
● Hypersensitivity, jumpiness, or easily startled
● Overwhelmed by everyday chores or responsibilities
When anxiety becomes crippling, it can create its own new source of anxiety. By becoming a barrier to our ability to complete our job, secure financial earnings, or participate in social or romantic relationships/partnerships, life can feel increasingly precarious and threatening. Of course, this only serves to enhance anxious feelings. When experiencing this vicious cycle, it is important to seek professional help.