Anxiety is one of the commonest mental health problems that people face. It is even more relevant to talk about what anxiety is given the times that we are now living in.
What is the difference between anxiety and stress?
We all feel stressed from time to time. This is not a bad thing- for example, it is normal and even helpful to feel stressed before an exam or a presentation. However this becomes a problem when you experience those same feelings without any obvious trigger, and it starts to affect your day-to-day life and ability to function.
What does anxiety feel like?
Many emotions are experienced both mentally and physically. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include tense muscles, palpitations, and rapid breathing. Some people can experience a panic attack – feeling you can’t breathe, that the world is going to end, even that you’re going to die.
In our mental world, anxiety can present as an inability to stop worrying about something. This is usually out of proportion to what you are worried about, and can result in catastrophizing.
Ultimately anxiety can affect the way you live your life. This can mean that you begin to avoid what it is that you are afraid of – for example, if you have social anxiety, you may stop attending large gatherings of people altogether.
What are the different types of anxiety?
The commonest type of anxiety is generalized anxiety, where the feeling of anxiety becomes constant, even if the reasons that you feel anxious do not seem obvious to you.
Other conditions fall under the umbrella of anxiety, such as panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and post traumatic stress.
Why do people experience anxiety?
As with many mental health conditions, anxiety occurs due to a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. Sometimes anxiety can run in families, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There are several personality traits that can predispose you to experiencing more anxiety- for example, being a perfectionist, trying to control the future, and being more shy and inhibited as a child. Finally, there are plenty of social triggers for anxiety, whether those are problems at work, home or school; your physical health (diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease are commonly associated with anxiety), big life changes (such as giving birth or losing a loved one). It is more often than not a combination of these different factors that can result in suffering from anxiety.
Why does it matter?
Not only does anxiety affect your emotional and mental health, it also affects how well you go through life in all it’s different aspects. Managing anxiety will improve your physical health (e.g. high blood pressure) and also ensure that you do not misuse alcohol/smoking to manage the anxiety.
What can I do about it?
Firstly, know that you are not alone! Almost every single one of us will go through times of anxiety in our lives, and we get through them. What needs to be done depends on how severe the anxiety is.
Things everyone can (and should) do – the effects of healthy living are far reaching. Eat well, limit your alcohol, exercise regularly, get into a sleep routine and make time for family/friends/hobbies. Try to practice some form of meditation and limit your time on social media. Speak to someone you can trust who can support you, whether that is a friend, family member, colleague or religious leader.
See your local doctor and speak to them. Depending on how mild or severe the anxiety is, they may suggest one or a combination of psychological and medical therapy.
Psychological support is essential for any type of anxiety. The commonest type is cognitive behavioural therapy. This is where you learn to identify how your thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact and influence each other. The best way to do this is through a psychologist or counsellor. Psychological therapy takes time to work (as do medications) – the benefits are seen over several weeks, and the effects can be long lasting. Good psychological therapy can be as effective or better than medication, although the two treatments may be more effective in combination for more severe anxiety.
Seeing a psychologist or counsellor is not unusual. Plenty of people do it, and it is becoming commoner internationally and also locally. There is no shame in seeking help if you are struggling. In fact, it is a sign of strength that you have recognised it and want to do something about it. Mental health problems are universal and having someone that can listen and help you to develop an understanding of where the anxiety comes from, how it manifests and what strategies you can use to manage it is completely normal and a healthy thing to do.
Medication is not essential to overcome anxiety. If your anxiety is severe, then medication may be prescribed by a doctor. These medications may be benzodiazepines (such as lorazepam or diazepam), or antidepressants .
Benzodiazepines should be prescribed by a doctor and only be used as a short-term solution to help feel calm – you can slowly reduce and then stop them under the instructions of your doctor. They can make you feel drowsy and you can become addicted to them over time. You should not be driving after you take benzodiazepines.
Antidepressant medications can be effective for anxiety- they help re-balance the chemicals in the brain that cause anxiety. Depression and anxiety often co-exist, so they are also useful in this respect. Do not stop taking them suddenly – discuss with your doctor if you are thinking about doing this. How long you take them for depends on your particular history.
What happens afterwards?
Once you have ways that you can manage your anxiety, all those ways of healthy living are just as important to continue. Anxiety can come and go. These practices will help to ensure that you continue to look after yourself, both physically and mentally.