Human anxiety is defined as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure, stomach cramps, and sometimes panic attacks. Anxiety often includes intrusive thoughts and worries, and individuals experiencing anxiety sometimes cope by avoiding specific people and situations. For many people, the first (and often only) reaction to anxiety is to immediately assume that experiencing anxiety is something bad, and to be avoided at all times and all costs. While the thinking here is spontaneous and short-sighted, it is understandable to want to avoid the physical manifestations of anxiety (i.e. nauseous stomach and rapid heartbeat). In fact, millions of Americans each year so dislike the symptoms of anxiety they ask their doctors directly for drugs that will help mute anxiety symptoms and improve mental health. While these medications are usually effective in controlling anxiety symptoms, a much bigger question remains: Should we tamp down the body’s natural alert system that tells us when to be observant and vigilant?
Should you mute — or better understand — the anxiety you experience?
A good analogy to use when discussing anxiety is to think about how you react when something is wrong with your car. If you drive your car today and hear an unusual noise, you have a couple immediate choices to address the problem. You could try to ignore the sound (i.e. by turning up your radio), or you could pause to think about the reason why your car is making that noise, and the consequences that will likely soon occur if you choose to ignore the problem. Turning up the radio will temporarily mute the sound, but you also know the sound your car is making is telling you something is not right, needs your attention, and probably is not going to fix itself by ignoring the problem.
When it comes to anxiety, a similar set of questions can be used by substituting your body’s way of getting your attention by means of an upset stomach and/or rapid heart beat. Taking a pill might mute the symptoms, but will also still leave you with the following questions relating to your mental health:
- Why am I feeling anxious?
- When I use a medication to temper my symptoms, am I also losing the body’s natural protection guarding me against things I should be anxious about?
- By not experiencing my body’s natural alert system (anxiety), am I missing out on developing invaluable stress-coping skills needed to successfully overcome difficult life situations?
When our bodies experience the symptoms associated with anxiety, it is an alarm we should welcome and embrace, not try to immediately squash. Our human hard-wiring, anxiety-response includes alerting us to potential danger, sometimes innately when we are not even sure what the danger might be (i.e. when you just have a feeling something isn’t right). Snuffing out this amazing defense system by means of drugs that mask symptoms may be doing a bigger disservice in the long-run, even if the drugs appear to work in the moment.
Anxiety can be challenging to deal with, but you may want to think twice before using medication to artificially tamp down the symptoms associated with anxiety. While you may not always know why you feel anxious, the symptoms you experience are the body’s natural, intuitive alert system telling you to pay close attention to your surroundings. When we mute those alerts, we may gain in temporary comfort, but lose in the big picture if it means we turn our attention away from issues that need addressed.