Anxiety can be defined as:
'a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.'
It is important to remember than anxiety can be a perfectly natural reaction or response to certain events in life, such as a job interview or sitting an exam for example.
If these feelings persist once an event has passed, there is no obvious reason to feel anxious, or if the reaction is excessive, anxiety can become a problem.
Some common symptoms of anxiety (please note this is not an exhaustive list):
- a churning feeling in your stomach
- faster breathing
- a fast, thumping, or irregular heartbeat
- sweating or hot flushes
- problems sleeping
- nausea (feeling sick)
- needing the toilet more or less often
- feeling tense, nervous, or unable to relax
- having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
- feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
- feeling like other people can see you are anxious and are looking at you
Anxiety shares many symptoms with stress, but anxiety is generally a more intense and longer lasting feeling. The symptoms of anxiety can impact on aspects of daily life and interfere with the ability to function 'normally'. At this point it can be said that an anxiety disorder is present.
There are many different types of anxiety – far too many to list in this article, however, some of the most frequently encountered include GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and Phobias. Further information on individual types of anxiety can be found at AnxietyUK.
Whatever specific type of anxiety an individual encounters, all have many common symptoms and it is important not to be too concerned with attaching a specific label to a condition.
What happens when anxiety is triggered?
An anxiety response is fundamentally the 'fight or flight' response the body responds with when facing something that is perceived as a threat. The body is flooded with adrenaline which is triggered by the part of our brain which has recognised a threat. This is a primitive response dating back to early man and which exists to protect us and give us the strength to either fight the threat or run from it – either way, the response helped us to survive and so our brain/body thinks it is helping us.
Anything other than an immediate threat to life that provokes this response is a false reaction from the brain. This is often as a result of a learned pattern of fear or an overstimulated nervous system, and it can occur following a prolonged period of stress resulting in the fight or flight switch being left in the 'on' position.
First and second fear- the cycle of anxiety
A major problem faced by those suffering from anxiety is not knowing what is happening.
The feelings brought about by anxiety can be uncomfortable and scary. What happens when we face something uncomfortable and scary? Additional fear is created, and the original symptoms are exacerbated. This is known as 'second fear'. First fear is the initial anxiety response, such as weak legs or increased heart rate, for example. Second fear comes from the reaction to those feelings, a kind of 'oh no what's happening?' 'something really bad is happening' which, if you are in an anxiety state already, is likely to happen. Thus, anxiety can become part of a cycle of fear.
A very effective first step to breaking this cycle is to develop an understanding of what is happening to you. In time this will help reduce the level of fear to a point where, whenever you feel anxious, you will simply acknowledge those feelings and not be so fearful of them. You will begin to see that they are harmless feelings that will pass – and they always do if you let them.
The anxiety paradox
It is natural when we feel fear and the uncomfortable symptoms it brings that we will want it to go away and do whatever we can to make it go away.
Paradoxically this produces completely the opposite result that we want. Doing this tells the brain that there is indeed something to fear and it gives the body more anxiety as a result.
Whilst understanding how difficult it is to do, the only way to overcome anxiety is to go through it; and that means facing the fear. By becoming accustomed to the feelings that anxiety brings, and understanding that they will pass, the brain gradually learns that there is no reason to continue to produce the anxious response.
This is commonly referred to as the 'acceptance' method. Accepting the feelings and letting them pass with time.
Many people see this methodology and instantly dismiss it on the basis that they cannot possibly cope with the symptoms. This is completely understandable as the symptoms of anxiety can be extremely distressing. However, acceptance is a proven method of overcoming anxiety.
Anyone interested in learning more about this method could read the works of Australian psychologist Dr Claire Weekes who pioneered the acceptance method.
What else can I do about anxiety?
There are of course many things that you can do to help alleviate anxious feelings. A small selection is featured below.
Commonly used methods of relaxation include meditation, yoga, indulging in hobbies that focus the mind such as reading or creative activities.
Medication is commonly prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. For more information about medication please contact your GP. This article provides a summary of potential options
Exercise is commonly used as a means of providing relief. This works by burning the excess adrenaline released into your body during periods of anxiety. Accordingly, the period following exercise is frequently a period of relief as the build-up of adrenaline has been removed from the body, and a period of calm can often follow. Exercise is also said to produce endorphins and create improved mood.
Therapy can be very effective in treating anxiety, it gives sufferers a safe space in which to discuss their feelings and help them to make sense of what is happening to them. Common therapeutic approaches to anxiety are CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which looks to help by changing the way you think and behave and Exposure Therapy which works on the basis of facing your fears and reducing their impact on you.
Therapy can be accessed on the NHS via your GP or there is a vast number of private therapists available.
The symptoms of anxiety can have devastating effects on people and developing an understanding of these is a good place to start.
Relief is available in many forms and anxiety is one of the most treatable mental health conditions.
Please note that the content in this article does not constitute medical advice and anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should contact their GP. In urgent cases or times of crisis this web page contains links to a number of resources.
The charity Mind also has an Infoline where you can access information about mental health problems, where to get help near you and treatment options. The number for this service is 0300 123 3393.