What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the feeling of intense fear and panic inside us. Most people will feel anxious when faced with difficult and stressful situations in life, such as exams at school; it is a perfectly understandable and common reaction. Often, once a stressful period of time comes to an end, we feel calmer and less anxious again. But sometimes these painful emotions continue, and we may find ourselves feeling greater levels of fear and panic more often than other people. At this point they may develop into anxiety disorders. Anxiety tends to be constant, whereas stress comes and goes. Typically, anxiety disorders present themselves in one of three ways:-
- Generalised panic disorder (GAD) – we will likely feel anxious most of the time and find it heavily impacts our day-to-day lives
- Panic attacks – We may suffer with unpredictable and very intense attacks of anxiety, with feelings coming on suddenly and reaching a peak within ten minutes. Physical symptoms are very common when suffering a panic attack, like feeling short of breath, having a racing heart beat and chest pains, and feeling like we are going to die, making them very frightening
- Phobias – When we suffer phobias our anxiety tends to be focussed on one particular issue. It may not seem like something to be feared by other people, but we can still be anxious and nervous about it, causing us to actively avoid it. Types of phobia include agoraphobia (a fear of going outside and in crowds), emetophobia (fear of vomit or vomiting), and social phobia (fear of meeting new people)
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety can be caused by several factors including:
- Individual family history
- Our genes
- Suffering from pre-existing physical or mental health problems
- Suffering trauma as children or in our teens.
When does anxiety become a problem?
Anxiety becomes a problem when it begins to impact on our day-to-day lives, and it may stop us doing the things we once enjoyed. Anxiety can cause several debilitating emotional and physical symptoms that make coping with it a real battle for many of us. Some to look out for are:
- Feeling worried all the time
- We may be unable to concentrate
- Feeling excessively tired
- Being really irritable with others
- Sleeping poorly
- Feeling increasingly depressed
- Loss of appetite
- Actively avoiding things that make us anxious
- Overwhelming need to seek reassurance from others and feeling dependant on them
Many of us who suffer with anxiety find it crippling and this can make us feel ashamed that we are ‘unable to cope’. In reality there is nothing to be ashamed of, but this way of thinking leads many of us to try and hide our anxiety from those around us, meaning we can become very isolated.
Techniques to help manage anxiety
Avoidance is a common coping strategy for those of us who suffer from anxiety; whilst we might feel this protects us, the truth is it only serves to increase our fear, creating a vicious cycle from which it’s hard to break free. Therefore, however hard it might feel, learning to face our fears gradually will give us the most benefit in the long term:
- Taking up a new class or hobby gives us goals to aim for and takes us out of our comfort zone – this can have a positive effect on our self-esteem and confidence. Some options include self-defence classes, dance lessons, creative writing courses or team sports
- Deep breathing and relaxation techniques, whilst they might make us feel a little self-conscious, can help us regain some control so that we feel less like we are being ruled by our anxiety – books, CD’s and courses are available widely in shops, schools, public libraries and online
- Exercise is great for us all, and especially beneficial if we are experiencing a difficult time emotionally because it releases feel-good chemicals, called endorphins, in our brains. It is a healthy distraction, can increase our social interaction with other people and boosts confidence – an excellent and largely free coping strategy
- Complementary therapies can be helpful for those of us suffering from anxiety, because they can help focus and relax our busy minds. Some good examples to try are yoga and meditation
Anxiety, depression and their link
Many emotional issues and mental health conditions can exist side by side, and there is a lot of evidence to show that anxiety and depression are linked and can occur at the same time in the same individual; this is called co-morbidity. In fact, not only are anxiety and depression the most common mental health conditions, they are also the two most co-morbid with one another.
Anxiety and depression are not the same conditions, but they often share symptoms, and occur together. It is not uncommon for those of us with depression to experience anxiety and those with anxiety to become depressed.
Getting further help
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our anxiety can overwhelm us and we need more help with managing it than just dealing with it alone. We can:
- Talk to a trusted friend/parent/carer or teacher
- Speak to our doctor about our feelings
- Be referred for counselling or other appropriate treatments