Life can be very difficult, and many people struggle with stress, anxiety, and low mood at times. We might feel depressed after a divorce, or stressed about financial problems, or anxious before attending a job interview. We often cannot change our daily experiences, but we CAN learn to manage our emotions and choose how we respond to life’s challenges.
Anxiety and depression, if left untreated, can negatively impact your wellbeing, day-to-day functioning, relationships, and productivity at work. They often co-exist together and can lead to a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion that usually involves an element of worry and fear. It could be described as uncomfortable feelings of unease, worry, nervousness, tension, and apprehension about what is to come. We all feel worried and anxious from time to time. This is a normal response to stress, that may even be useful or beneficial in some situations.
Many believe that anxiety is a harmful emotion that should be feared and avoided at all costs. We disagree and propose that emotional discomfort is a very normal part of the universal human experience. Although anxiety usually feels unpleasant, it can help us stay alert and focused, motivate us to get tasks done, help us sense danger and respond to immediate threats, and plan for the future. A degree of anxiety can also improve our performance in certain situations, such as writing exams, job interviews, meeting a work deadline, giving a speech, and participating in sporting events.
It is an important evolutionary mechanism that supports our survival as a species. It is the body’s natural reaction to danger and most of us feel anxious or fearful when threatened. In a dangerous situation, it helps us to react in a way that keeps us safe by preparing our body to either run away or fight back. This is called the “fight or flight” response.
Anxiety is therefore a natural and helpful response that protects us from danger, but it becomes problematic when we experience anxiety in the absence of danger or long after a stressful or dangerous situation has passed. It is a problem if it becomes excessive, occurs too often and for no apparent reason, or if it begins to interfere with our functioning and daily living.
How can we tell whether we are experiencing normal everyday anxiety or a disorder?
High levels of anxiety can cause us to feel frightened and panicky and prevent us from carrying out normal day-to-day activities. Anxiety has different forms; it can be quite general and affect many areas of our lives, or it may be more specific to certain situations, such as crowded places, talking to people or doing work presentations. It could even occur as a specific phobia such as a fear of flying or heights. These disorders share the following: persistent, excessive, and irrational worry or fear situations where most people would not feel threatened.
What causes anxiety?
That is a complicated question to answer as the exact cause of anxiety disorders is not known. Anxiety may develop into a problem for many different reasons and the causes may vary from person to person. However, it is important to remember that anxiety disorders are not the result of personal weakness or a character flaw.
Experts believe that a combination of factors may play a role in the development of an anxiety disorder, including:
- Genetics: Research shows that having a close relative with anxiety problems increases your chances of experiencing anxiety problems yourself.
- Biology: Many researchers argue that anxiety disorders are caused by problems in the functioning of brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions.
- Home environment: Genes are important, but researchers believe that environmental factors play a bigger role.
- Stress: Everyone encounters stress, but long or intense periods of unresolved stress can increase your chances of developing chronic anxiety.
- Personality type: Some individuals are more prone to anxiety. Busy, highly-strung people with type A personalities are at greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
- Trauma: Severe trauma, such as child abuse, losing a parent, or military combat, increases your risk of developing anxiety. This can include being the victim of trauma, being close to someone who is the victim of trauma or witnessing a traumatic event.
- External threats: Experiencing a specific incident as threatening may result in us feeling anxious the next time we are in similar circumstances.
- Social isolation: A lack of social support can be a risk factor. Being alone for an extended period of time, such as during the Covid-19 lockdown, may contribute to feelings of anxiety or trigger an anxiety disorder.
If you consider the above factors, you are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if you are a woman who has a history of childhood trauma, depression, cancer, a Type A personality, and a history of cocaine abuse. But it is important to remember that an anxiety disorder may develop without any external stimuli whatsoever.
Anxiety affects our thoughts, moods, physical reactions, and behaviours. It is important to remember that the symptoms are uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous and can even be helpful. For example, our hearts pump faster when we feel afraid and send more blood to our muscles so that we can run away, fight or remain still until the danger passes.
Even though each disorder has its own unique features, there are some common symptoms listed below:
- Feeling tense, nervous, restless or tense
- A sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Difficulty controlling worry
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- An increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Chest pain or pressure
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling weak or tired
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea and diarrhoea
- The urge to avoid things that trigger you
- Panic attacks, in severe cases
Feeling worried, anxious and fearful from time to time is normal. However, these disorders occur when a person regularly feels overwhelming worry, fear, or distress that does not go away and can even get worse over time.
People with anxiety disorders respond to many situations with fear and dread, as well as physical symptoms such as sweating and a pounding heart. It is constant and can be crippling because it interferes with daily activities such as job performance and relationships.
Different types of anxiety disorders
There are many different types of anxiety disorders, the most common are:
- Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
- Generalised anxiety disorder: Those with this anxiety disorder feel excessive, unrealistic worry and tension about activities or events with little or no reason.
- Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden and intense fear that brings on a panic attack. During a panic attack you may have a rapid heartbeat (palpitations), difficulty breathing, chest pain, break out in a sweat and tremble.
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia): People with this anxiety disorder feel extremely self-conscious and experience overwhelming worry about everyday social situations. You obsessively worry about being embarrassed or judged and ridiculed by others.
- Specific phobias can be described as an intense fear of a specific situation or object, such as blood/injections, heights or flying. The fear goes beyond what is appropriate and may cause you to avoid ordinary situations. Phobias may also lead to panic attacks in some people.
- Substance-induced anxiety disorder is characterised by symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are a direct result of misusing drugs. This includes taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance or withdrawal from drugs.
The good news is that it is treatable. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a very effective therapeutic technique that is used all over the world to treat a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety. CBT has been found to be equally, if not more effective than medicine, in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Many therapists combine CBT with Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), when working with anxious clients. The main goal of DBT is to help you to manage your emotions. During DBT groups you will learn skills such as mindfulness and distress tolerance techniques. These will help you to accept the present moment with willingness, rather than fighting an unchangeable reality.
Developing essential life skills (such as assertiveness, healthy boundaries, effective communication, resolving conflict, stress management and self-care) is an important part of a successful anxiety programme. Our occupational therapist will help you to identify and build the skills that you need for psychological wellbeing.
If you’re struggling, remember that you’re not alone and there are ways to cope. Contact us if you need more support.
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