What is anxiety?
While the state of anxiety is a natural, short-lived reaction to a stressful situation, anxiety can persist to become a mental health condition when it causes a crippling inability to stop worrying about trivial events or situations, and interferes with everyday life.
There is no known concrete cause for an anxiety disorder. Current research suggests that there are numerous factors that contribute to anxiety, either in isolation or combination.
- Genetics: Some anxiety disorders appear to have a genetic component, with disorders sometimes occurring across generations in families.
- Biology: How the brain processes and responds to stress and physical arousal is thought to play a role.
- Thought patterns: Overthinking, persistent negativity and difficulty in coping with uncertainty have been linked with anxiety.
- Stressful events: Events and past trauma can act as a catalyst for anxiety.
Signs and symptoms
Anxiety disorders are experienced differently by everyone, and so may be difficult to first identify. If anxiety is unprompted, persistent and frequent, this may signal an anxiety disorder. Some common symptoms are:
- Physical symptoms: Panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, sweating, nausea, shaking, tightening of the chest and restlessness.
- Psychological symptoms: Excessive fear, worry, trouble concentrating, catastrophic and obsessive thinking
- Behavioural: Avoidance of situations that make an individual feel anxious, withdrawal from previously enjoyable activities.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders. While they share some symptoms, they have markedly different triggers and manifest in different ways.
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): Persistent and excessive worrying about everyday occurrences such as family, work and school, experienced on most days. Symptoms need to persist for a period of at least 6 months or more.
- Specific phobia: Extreme fear and anxiety triggered by a specific object or situation, e.g. heights, spiders, etc.
- Panic Disorder: Repeated panic attacks, which are intense, overwhelming and uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, that cause shortness of breath, chest pain, excessive sweating and dizziness. Panic attacks do not necessarily have a trigger, and may make an individual feel that they are dying. If a person has more than one panic attack each month, they may be diagnosed with this disorder.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Recurring and distressing anxious thoughts, leading to obsessive behaviours or rituals to mitigate this anxiety. Individuals often know that their obsessions and compulsions aren’t necessary, but feel unable to stop them.
- Social anxiety disorder: A consuming fear of embarrassment or humiliation in public settings, such as public speaking or at social events.
Treatment and Support
Recovery from an anxiety disorder is possible.
The most common form of treatment is therapy with a health professional.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) focuses on changing behaviours, reducing symptoms and building resilience through modifying thought patterns and establishing new behaviours.
In some cases, medication may be prescribed.
Medication is usually used in conjunction with therapy.
Mindfulness may reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Mindfulness helps an individual centre themselves and raise awareness of their symptoms, thoughts and emotions. This often involves accepting thoughts without forming judgement, instead of withdrawing from or fighting them.
Lifestyle changes can also help individuals with anxiety.
Alcohol and caffeine can worsen symptoms, so reducing their consumption may be helpful. Regular exercise can also help to increase energy levels, improve sleep and distract from worries or recurring thoughts. Learning relaxation techniques can help individuals learn to control both mental and physical aspects of anxiety.
Supporting someone with anxiety
Some individuals may not feel comfortable initiating conversations about their own mental health, so it may be helpful for supporters to consider the following steps in order to discuss concerns:
- Confirm that there is a problem. Finding a good time to talk, when the individual is open to the conversation, is important.
- Suggesting that an individual seeks help and offering to go with them may help those hesitant to reach out for treatment to initiate the first step.
- People with anxiety may withdraw from social situations, so inviting them to social events and being supportive throughout may be helpful.
- Reassuring and being available to listen will provide a safe space for someone with anxiety, giving them somewhere to turn for support so they don’t have to deal with their mental health issues on their own.
Healing takes time, and an individual with anxiety may need extra support and love from those around them. Patience is crucial, and may make all the difference for someone whether they are already in the recovery process, or hesitant to take the next step.