It is normal to be anxious from time to time.
Whether it’s something such as waiting to go into a job interview or an undefined fear about something unknown coming around the corner, anxious thoughts and feelings are a predictable and appropriate response.
However, what if your anxiety becomes relentless or overwhelming, or doesn’t seem to have a cause? In cases like these, when anxiety no longer seems like a reasonable response and your well-being is at risk, you need to take action.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a mixture of uneasy feelings, including nervousness, worry and fear, about yourself or others.
It can be caused by specific situations such as sending your child to school for the first time, or realising that you’re lost in an unfamiliar location.
It can also be a response to your thoughts about things that have already happened or are yet to happen. You might find yourself worrying about whether you upset someone days ago, or feeling anxious about giving a big presentation at work that’s still weeks away.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling sick
- Being unable to sleep
Mental effects are also wide-ranging and include:
- Clouded thinking
- Difficulty concentrating
- Over-active imagination
For some people, anxiety is also accompanied by misplaced feelings of embarrassment or shame.
Anxiety can range in intensity from a mild sense of uneasiness, to severe, even paralysing, distress. It can also vary in duration, from momentary to prolonged, and in some extreme cases, constant.
Anxiety is a common problem. The World Health Organisation (WHO) put the number of people suffering from problematic anxiety worldwide in 2017, at more than 300 million.
Why are we so Anxious?
There are many reasons why anxiety is so widespread. Although many of the physical threats our ancestors faced have been reduced or ruled out, more abstract threats have replaced them. These include worries about the economy, social standing and professional success.
Many aspects of modern life could also be to blame. For example, research has highlighted the damaging impact of social media use on anxiety and a study in the British Medical Journal drew a link between increased air pollution and raised anxiety.
Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress or threat. It is a hard-wired safety response, part of the “fight, flight, freeze” instinct.
When we or someone we care about is at risk, our brain prioritises the danger and focusses its energy on beating it. Complex thinking processes are shut down to allow us to concentrate on the danger at hand. Meanwhile, signals go out to our body to prepare for action. Adrenaline and cortisol (our major stress hormone) flood our bodies. Our breathing quickens, our heart starts pumping faster to send more blood to our muscles as we prepare to fight or run away. Both our mind and body adapt in order to give us the best chance of surviving until the danger passes.
The same responses can be triggered when there is no immediate physical danger. Just thinking about a threat, past or future, can be enough to activate intense anxiety. This can mean that there’s no clear end point to the threat, so all these anxious feelings can persist. In these circumstances, anxiety can evolve into something that’s problematic. When the perceived danger is constant, our body remains flooded with adrenaline and cortisol which is also not good for our physical health, especially our hearts.
Feeling a little anxious before a big exam, for example, might focus your mind and energise you to give your best performance on the day. However, if it becomes too much, it could make you feel sick, prevent you from sleeping properly and leave you with a shaky hand and a wandering or blank mind when the exam begins.
In more extreme cases, anxiety can become a recognised disorder. Anxiety disorders can cause severe health problems; so if anxiety impacts any aspect of your well-being, seek professional help.
Six Types of Anxiety Disorders
The six most common types of anxiety disorders are:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – OCD causes people to have obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. They feel anxious until they’ve responded in a particular way and often need to carry out complex physical or mental routines to do so. Family history, personality traits and differences in the brain are all believed to be causes of OCD. In some cases, it can be triggered by a particularly stressful life event.
- Panic disorder – You might have a panic disorder if you experience panic attacks (also called anxiety attacks). These can seem to come from nowhere and can last for several minutes. Classic symptoms of a panic attack include a sense of doom, sweating, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath. People can feel as though they are having a heart attack or are dying.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – This is a serious condition that commonly occurs when you’ve witnessed or experienced a disaster or traumatic event, or you’ve been in a situation where your life or health was threatened. People with PTSD often experience flashbacks and can also have trouble sleeping. They may find it hard to concentrate or feel constantly alert and on edge.
- Social anxiety disorder – This is more than extreme shyness, but a deep fear or concern of being judged by others, of performing or embarrassing yourself.
- Specific phobias – Suffering from a phobia is also a form of anxiety disorder. You have a phobia when you’re excessively frightened or anxious about a specific object, place or situation and you go out of your way to avoid it.
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – If you’ve experienced anxiety regularly for six months or more, you may have GAD. People with this condition consistently expect the worst to happen, even when there’s little or no reason to be concerned. They’re particularly susceptible to common worries such as those about family, work and money. Even when something is resolved, a new worry can quickly fill its place. People with GAD often struggle to recall the last time they didn’t feel anxious.
Tips for Dealing with Anxiety
Each of the anxiety disorders above has its own range of therapies and coping strategies.
Many forms of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), cognitive restructuring and/or medication.
There are also various techniques for managing some of the common symptoms of anxiety. These can be helpful when you’re going through worrying times, at home or work, or facing particular challenges that make you anxious. Here are six strategies that you can try:
- Identify sources of stress – Stress, particularly long-term stress, is strongly linked to anxiety. A good place to start is the Homes and Rahe Stress Scale (https://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTCS_82.php?route=pages/article/newTCS_82.php). This tool allows you to analyse the sources of stress in your life. Another approach is to start keeping a stress diary. Every day write down the stresses that you experience and record any anxious thoughts that you have. After a few days, read your diary and explore possible causes and triggers.
Once you’ve identified specific sources of stress and anxiety, you can take steps to avoid them, or at least to manage your feelings toward them. Knowing the triggers should also help you to discuss them with others and seek support when required.
- Exercise more – Studies show that regular exercise can help to reduce anxiety and build tolerance for stress. Look for opportunities to fit exercise into your day, as even small amounts of exercise can have a positive effect on anxious thoughts and feelings.
Yoga can be especially useful for managing anxiety, since it helps to slow and focus your breathing and can give you more control over your body and mind.
- Watch what you eat – You can often lessen your anxiety by reducing or avoiding certain foods and drinks. For example, consider limiting your intake of caffeine, alcohol, soft drinks, energy drinks and chocolate. Watching what you eat also means eating a healthy, balanced diet, not skipping meals and staying hydrated throughout the day.
- Use relaxation techniques – You can use deep breathing exercises to control your stress and anxiety. Deep breathing is especially effective for managing short-term anxiety. If you begin to feel anxious, try taking 10 or 20 slow, deep breaths to calm down. Breathe in as deeply as you can, hold the air in your lungs for several seconds and let each breath out slowly. Other effective relaxation techniques include meditation, mindfulness and grounding.
- Think positively – Often, anxious episodes are preceded by self-sabotaging thoughts or behaviours. Before leading a meeting, for example, you might start imagining it getting out of control and worrying that you’re going to look bad in front of your team.
To help with this, write down any negative thoughts as soon as they arise. Then, note down the exact opposites of those thoughts. For example, before your meeting, you could write, “I’m a confident and organised leader and the people I work with respect me”.
As you write out these positive affirmations, start to visualise successful outcomes, both what you hope to happen and how you want to feel. Mentally rehearsing your meeting like this should relax your mind and body and help to keep your anxiety under control.
- Get more organised – Poor organisation can be a serious source of stress and anxiety. If this is the case with you, you’ll likely benefit from learning good time-management skills. Make sure that you manage your daily tasks and responsibilities effectively. Consider using a simple time-management technique such as a To-Do List or explore more in-depth tools such as Action Programs.
A calm and organised working environment should also help you to feel more in control.
Anxiety during COVID-19 & other Triggering Times
During a time of crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic and the looming economic recession, it’s particularly important to manage your anxiety.
While it’s reasonable to be more concerned than usual about safety, you also need to ensure that your anxious thoughts don’t themselves become damaging. The term “coronanxiety” has been coined for this particular situation where anxiety has become more widespread, but anxious feelings can also extend beyond the dangers at hand.
In addition to all the techniques mentioned above, there are three more worth trying during difficult times:
- Limit your exposure to information – It’s important to stay informed, however, do you need a constant flow of information? Giving yourself some news-free periods can curb the urge to panic and help you to keep things in perspective.
- Focus on the things you can control – Anxiety may get out of hand when you can’t let go of issues that are simply too big or complex for you to solve. Instead, try to focus on the things that you can influence. Stick to routines and maintain your regular support network as much as possible. Aim to do things that make a positive impact but that also have an end point. For example, rather than worrying constantly about a neighbour, check in on them, do something practical to help and then draw a line under that particular worry for a while.
- Prioritise your well-being – During times like this, it’s more important than ever to eat well, take appropriate exercise, get good sleep and find time to relax. Try to do more of the things that make you feel calm and in control.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .