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Anxiety is as much a part of the American culture as cable TV, fast food and overpriced sneakers. The military, as a microcosm of the larger society, is certainly not immune. Anxiety is woven so deeply into our collective psyche that we spend billions of dollars each year on therapists, medications and self-help books to rid ourselves of it.
If you are like most, you worry about getting promoted. You stress about how you will pay next month’s mortgage. And you stay up late wondering if your unit will deploy again.
But what is anxiety? Definitions vary, but in the simplest terms, it is an unpleasant feeling of apprehension or concern. It’s a noticeable and troubling feeling of unease and unrest, and in many cases has no known cause. Many terms have been used to describe it, including nervousness, panic, fear, the jitters.
There are three terms, however, that share similarities and are most often used to describe anxiety: worry, stress and fear.
Worry is what we do to ourselves by thinking too much. Fear is the most primitive form of anxiety — the emotional response that flares when we’re faced with a threat. And stress, a term that is used to describe everything psychologically and physically unpleasant, is how the body and mind feel when life’s demands are greater than what we can handle.
Here’s an example that may help further clarify the nature of anxiety.
One evening while driving home from the grocery store, Joe began to feel uneasy as he approached an overpass on the highway. He started thinking about how an insurgent threw a makeshift bomb onto his vehicle as he drove under an overpass during his second deployment to Iraq.
He began to drive faster and wanted to hurry and reach the other side of the bridge (anxiety). Suddenly, Joe’s heart began to race. He broke into a sweat and had this intense feeling that he was about to die (fear). After he passed through, he was fine. However, once he got home he was physically and emotionally drained (stress).
For several days, he couldn’t get the thought of that overpass and what happened to him in Iraq out of his head. He was consumed with thoughts about what would happen to him next time he came upon an overpass (worry).
Anxiety, regardless of how you define it, is here to stay. It can range from mildly annoying to emotionally crippling. If you believe you are suffering from anxiety that has gotten out of control, you would be doing yourself a favor by seeking the help of a compassionate friend, chaplain or mental health professional.
Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and author of the newly published “Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress, and Fear.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.