What is Anxiety?
Anxiety disorders are the most common reason people come to see a psychologist. Anxiety is very common and is understood to affect one in 20 people at any given time.
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear, or impending disaster. Fears can escalate and distort a person’s thinking and bodily reactions can be confusing and overwhelming. Everyone occasionally experiences some anxiety as it is a normal response to a stressful event or perceived threat. Anxiety can range from feeling uneasy and worried to severe panic.
However, when anxiety is severe it can feel overwhelming and interfere with your ability to go about your everyday life. Anxiety can lead to people avoiding a number of situations, producing unhelpful coping strategies, constant worrying and planning, experiencing panic attacks, or developing phobias.
If left untreated anxiety disorders can adversely affect an individual’s quality of life, lead to depression, and result in an inability to function on a day to day basis.
What are the symptoms of Anxiety?
How an individual experiences anxiety will vary. Common symptoms of anxiety include ongoing worry or thoughts that are distressing and that interfere with daily living. As well as worrying, ruminating about the past, and negative thinking, other symptoms may include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Avoidance behaviour
For some people the feeling of high anxiety can become severe and interfere with normal functioning, making it difficult for them to cope with ordinary daily demands. If this high anxiety persists over a long period of time an anxiety disorder may be diagnosed.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder– This disorder involves persistent and excessive worry, often about daily situations such as work, family or health. This worry can be difficult to control, leading to problems in concentration, restlessness, and difficulty sleeping.
Social Anxiety Disorder– Social Anxiety Disorder is when an individual has severe anxiety about being criticised or negatively evaluated by others. This leads to avoiding social events or being afraid of doing something that leads to embarrassment or humiliation.
Specific Phobia– People with specific phobia experience extreme anxiety and fear if exposed to a particular feared object or situation. Common phobias include fear of flying, spiders and other animals, heights or small spaces.
Panic Disorder– Panic Disorder occurs when a person has sudden surges of overwhelming fear that come without warning. These panic attacks often last for just a few minutes, but repeat episodes may continue, or the fear of one occurring becomes problematic in itself.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)– In OCD a person has recurring, upsetting thoughts called obsessions such as “there are germs everywhere.” To make these thoughts go away, the individual will often perform certain behaviours, called compulsions, over and over again such as repeated hand washing. These compulsions can take over a person’s life and while people with OCD usually recognise that their obsessions and compulsions are an over-reaction, they can’t stop them.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)– PTSD can occur after exposure to a frightening and traumatic event. People with PTSD re-experience the traumatic event through memories and/or dreams, they tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event, and are extremely sensitive to normal life experiences that are associated with the event.
Anxiety disorders can be treated and there are a number of therapies that are effective.
In the majority of anxiety disorders, psychological treatments are the most successful. They aim to change the thoughts and beliefs which trigger anxiety, and the patterns of associated behaviours. Common treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, behavioural therapy, solution-focussed therapy, and if appropriate exposure therapy.
Education about anxiety is an important factor so talking about your symptoms, understanding what is happening to you physically as well as mentally, and dispelling the myths and fears that are commonly held about anxiety are key steps towards recovery.
Techniques and strategies to manage symptoms include identifying and challenging unhelpful thought patterns, learning new coping strategies, breathing and relaxation exercises, mindfulness skills, and at times gradual exposure to the trigger.