Unlike stress that can come and go with the situation creating it (maybe work, study, relationship or money problems), anxiety is something that can persist whether or not the cause is clear to you.
Anxiety can make you imagine that things in your life are worse than they really are, and prevent you from confronting your fears. You may feel that you are going mad, or that some psychological imbalance is at the heart of your unhappiness. However, it is important to realize that anxiety is natural and normal and results as part of a process of bodily functions designed to help you. It is your body’s natural reaction to a challenging event or situation. Biologically the body is readying itself to either stand and fight the threat or to get out of the situation quickly – both of which require a physical response. This process gives you a boost of adrenaline that increases your heart rate and the amount of oxygen going to your limbs known as the “fight or flight” response. The “butterflies in the stomach” feeling that many associate with anxiety is this mechanism kicking in, but instead of being used to avoid immediate danger, it is often inappropriately activated during normal, everyday situations when stress has built up, often without you realizing it is happening.
Common physical symptoms of anxiety include: increased heart rate, palpitations, muscle tension, “Jelly legs”, tingling in the hands and feet, hyperventilation (over breathing), dizziness, difficulty breathing, wanting to use the toilet more often, feeling sick, tightening across the chest area, headaches, hot flushes, perspiration, dry mouth, shaking, sensing a lump in the throat or choking sensations. You may experience some of the following thoughts: that you may lose control or go “mad”, have a heart attack/be sick/faint/die/have a brain tumour, feel people are looking at you and observing your anxiety, things seem to be speeding up/slowing down, feel detached from your environment and other people, wanting to escape from the situation or feel on edge and alert to everything around you.
Some people have a very identifiable cause for their anxiety; a traumatic incident, lots of stressors, or have undergone a significant life event (such as moving house, a separation, health worries). For others there is no identifiable cause for their anxiety and this creates distress. It can be helpful to think about your stress levels as being like a bucket of water. When you keep adding stressors to the bucket (even little ones like finding a parking space or commuting to work), over time it fills and fills until one day it overflows. This can be a good way of looking at anxiety as it explains how sometimes it can seem to come out of nowhere with no significant trigger. However, what has happened is that the trigger was just a very small stressor that tipped you over the edge and allowed your bucket to overflow. You really need a leaky bucket with lots of holes to reduce your overall stress levels. Each one of these holes could be something positive that you do to manage your anxiety, such as deep relaxation, exercise, reading, listening to music or spending time with friends or family.
The most common behaviour when you are anxious is avoidance. Although avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation can provide immediate relief, it is only a short-term solution. Although it may seem like the best thing to do at the time, the anxiety returns the next time the situation happens as avoidance has reinforced the message that there is a threat. When you start avoiding things you never get to find out whether your fear about the situation is justified or what would happen.
The common thread between most anxiety disorders is the panic attack. However, when panic attacks are experienced out of nowhere without an apparent trigger, this is classified as panic disorder. People with panic disorder often feel OK one minute, and the next may feel totally out of control and in the grips of a panic attack. Panic attacks produce very real physical symptoms, from a rapid increase in heartbeat to a churning stomach sensation. These physical symptoms are naturally unpleasant and the accompanying thoughts of terror can make a panic attack a scary experience. People start to dread the next attack, and quickly enter into a cycle of living in fear of fear.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is diagnosed by your doctor when you feel in a constant state of high anxiety and is also called ‘chronic worrying’ or a ‘free floating’ anxiety condition. People with GAD often describe how they can resolve an issue but as soon as this happens, another worry pops up. Everyone has worries from time to time, but GAD is different in that the worry can last for over 6 months, and the level of worry is out of proportion to the risk. For example, if a family member is an hour late getting home without calling, a person with GAD may think ‘they must have had an accident’, rather than any other explanation such as being delayed in traffic.
GAD is particularly difficult to live with as it is constantly on a person’s mind – there is no respite, as the anxiety is not tied to a specific situation or event. It can cause problems with sleep, maintaining a job and impact close relationships. If you feel you may have GAD or panic disorder then you are advised to seek further information and guidance from your doctor who will be able to make a formal diagnosis.
If you feel anxious all the time, for several weeks or if it feels like your anxiety is taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to ask for professional help. Prolonged anxiety, and the overthinking that accompanies it, interferes with sleeping patterns and can result in overwhelm and low mood. It may seem hard to admit to fears that most other people don’t appear to have, but asking for help is a sign of strength and the first step in getting better.
I specialize in helping people like you overcome anxiety. I draw on a comprehensive range of techniques and approaches to help you overcome your difficulties. If you’re interested in finding out more about the ways I can help, then get in touch.