Understanding anxiety: What is anxiety and how can we manage it?

We hear a lot about anxiety these days, especially as it relates to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health.

Mental Health Research Canada has reported that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians’ anxiety levels have quadrupled, and 57 per cent of recently unemployed Canadians reported that their mental health has been negatively affected by job loss.1 The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to fears around both economic uncertainty and health, as well as imposed dramatic changes in lifestyle for most Canadians – and all of these factors can contribute to poor mental health.

COVID-19 aside, many Canadians experience anxiety on a daily basis. Anxiety can motivate us, enhance our performance and it helps to keep us safe. But when does anxiety become an issue? If you’re experiencing anxiety, know that you’re not alone.

Read below to learn more about what anxiety is, when to get help, and how you can help manage it in your own life.

What is anxiety?

Renowned meditation expert and clinical psychologist, Tara Brach, defines anxiety as when fear turns into a constant state of being. It’s important to know that some fear and anxiety is normal. Anxiety is a reaction to events and situations in our lives and serves as our internal warning system alerting us to danger – switching our parasympathetic nervous system into fight or flight mode.2 The problem is that while our ancestors used fight or flight mode to respond to real, physical danger, many of us are triggered into fight or flight mode by a rogue e-mail or an inflammatory headline in the news.

A manageable amount of anxiety can help motivate us to meet a deadline, and sometimes we can even feel anxious about happy events in our lives, such as a wedding or a date. Anxiety becomes a problem when it feels both overwhelming and unmanageable, and rises up unexpectedly.3 When anxiety begins to affect daily function, it can become a problem.

Problematic anxiety can cause a person can feel trapped by their thoughts and feelings and become increasingly overwhelmed by everything.4 Problematic anxiety can be caused by a combination of biological and psychological factors, as well as challenging life experiences. Anxiety problems may be brought on by a traumatic or stressful life event, family history of anxiety disorders, childhood development issues, alcohol, medications or illegal substances, and other medical or psychiatric problems. If anxiety becomes chronic, or causes so much stress that it impact one’s relationships, work and life, it may be an anxiety disorder.

What is the difference between regular anxiety, and an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders can stop people from being able to effectively participate at work or in school, socialize, or be in relationships.

Anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder when:

  • It affects function and creates significant disruption
  • Strong anxious feelings occur most days, and for months at a time

Normal anxiety:

  • Is related to a specific situation or problem, and usually lasts only as long as the situation or problem
  • Is also proportional to the situation or problem, and is a realistic and rational response to a realistic and rational problem or situation

An anxiety disorder:

  • Rises unexpectedly
  • Has a disproportionate response to the situation
  • Causes fear of situations that are unlikely to happen
  • Continues even if the situation or problem has been resolved
  • Feels impossible to control or manage
  • Makes it difficult to calm yourself, even when there is no evident stressor
  • Causes you to actively avoid situations that may trigger your anxiety 5

Panic Attacks:

Panic attacks involve a sudden onset feelings of extreme anxiety or intense fear when there is no immediate danger present. Panic attacks can occur in otherwise healthy people, and usually last around five to ten minutes.6 Sometimes panic attacks can be so intense that a person fears they are having a heart attack. Repeated panic attacks can result in a subset of anxiety disorder called panic disorder.

How can I manage my anxiety?

There are many ways to self-manage anxiety, including and mindfulness techniques, and ensuring proper sleep,   and exercise. Anxiety can also be managed with the assistance of mental health professionals using a combination of therapy, and sometimes, medication.

If you feel as though your anxiety requires medical attention, please do not hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider, a clinical counsellor, or a registered psychologist. Psychological treatments such as relaxation training, meditation, biofeedback, and stress management techniques can help with anxiety disorders. Many people also benefit from the objective eye of a counsellor for individual, couples, or family counselling. Most experts agree that the most effective form of treatment for anxiety disorders is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). In CBT, participants learn to identify, question, and change the thoughts and beliefs that cause difficult emotional and behavioural reactions. Medications may also assist with managing anxiety and many people receive a combination of CBT and medication when undergoing treatment for anxiety.7

Some helpful practices you can do on your own:

  • Mindfulness or meditation, even just for 5 minutes (try apps like Headspace or Calm)
  • Relaxing activities such as reading, having a bath or playing a game
  • Talking to trusted friends or family
  • Getting enough sleep and practicing good hygiene
  • If sleep is hard for you, engage in calming night time activities such as reading, listening to the sound of the ocean or a bedtime story (available on Headspace or Calm)
  • Eat a healthy diet, making sure your basic nutritional needs are met
  • Limit caffeine, drug and alcohol intake
  • Participate in regular and fun adventures
  • Be understanding and compassionate with yourself when your anxiety is triggered – being hard on yourself adds to the distress
  • Unplug as much as possible – especially social media and the news (Try TELUS Wise)

If you’re feeling anxious, you’re not alone!

Of the 1,080 Canadians surveyed by Mental Health Research Canada, 18% say they have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. 2020 has been a stressful year, and if your anxiety is verging into problematic territory, it’s crucial that you get the help you need so you can improve your quality of life. If you’re interested in booking an appointment with one of our qualified psychologists, please contact us today.



1 Mental Health Research Canada

2 Here to help BC

3 Here to help BC

4 Here to help BC

5 Canadian Association of Mental Health

6 Healthlink BC 

7 Anxiety Canada