When you're suffering from anxiety, "normal" is probably one of the last things you'd use to describe your experience. But this mental health disorder is more common than you might think, and the feelings associated with it come from a deep-seated, primal place within us.
One of your brain's primary functions is to keep you safe. It does this in countless ways you don't even notice. For example, as you're reading this, your eyes are sending information to your visual system, which helps you read and interpret these words. At the same time, you're unconsciously scanning your surroundings for signs of danger. That's why sudden movements in the corners of your vision can capture your attention even if you're focusing on something else.
Similarly, your auditory system is listening not only for your phone ringing but also for crashes, bangs, and other sounds that could mean a hazard is nearby. Normally, these underlying functions of your brain serve to keep you aware of your environment, alerting you only when you should take action to protect yourself.
A Wrench in the System
Sometimes, though, your brain chemistry reacts in a big way to a small event or to no event at all, setting your heart pounding and getting your body ready to fight or flee. These feelings of nervousness at the wrong times can be very uncomfortable, but they're also very common. Nearly 30 percent of Americans experience anxiety at some point in their lives.
It can happen in social situations, such as when you're speaking in public or in a crowded room -- we call that social anxiety. Sometimes, it happens suddenly in a wave of in fear; this is known as panic disorder. Other times, the excessive anxiousness people feel is simply tension, irritability, fatigue, and a feeling of being out-of-control that causes them to lose sleep. All these disorders happen for the same reason: The brain's system for keeping us safe is in overdrive.
The Heart of the Matter
It's important to understand that brain chemistry is at the root of it all. The cycle of fear without reason often begins without warning and goes on without our input. Even if the feelings are triggered by an event, no one can give themselves an anxiety disorder, and no one should be expected make it go away without some well-deserved assistance. That assistance can come in several forms -- from therapy, to mindfulness, to medication.
While transient feelings of nervousness can be a normal part of a healthy life, anxiety that persists for months with frequent, severe symptoms can make life harder and less comfortable than it should be. If you or someone you care about is suffering from frequent anxiety, talk to your health care provider. You're not alone, either in suffering or in deserving assistance. In time and with help, your brain will be able to resume its regular role as the primary protector of your well-being.