Anxiety is something all human beings experience. It’s a useful survival strategy to help us concentrate, see things through until the end and keep ourselves and others safe. When we experience anxiety temporarily we are able to manage the intensification, peak and subsidence – like a wave (that is present with all feelings if we don’t squash them down). However, some people seem more prone to becoming locked into a negative cycle they are unable to break, a cycle of fear → adrenaline → fear. This may be because they have suffered a stressful event and are more alert to danger, because they have learned to fear feelings themselves and don’t trust their ability to cope with the waves of emotion or perhaps because they are naturally empathic and pick up on others anxiety. Only you can say if anxiety has become a problem for you.
Anxiety is usually categorised in three ways:
General Anxiety Disorder
This is where anxiety has become habitual, ongoing and out of proportion to what is going on, even becoming anxious about the anxiety. People commonly experience psychological symptoms such as restlessness, negative intrusive thoughts, racing thoughts, feelings of dread, an inability to focus and disturbed sleep. Physical symptoms include nausea, sweating, palpitations, a dry mouth, muscle tremors, muscle aches, dizziness, shortness of breath and changes in eating/sleeping patterns. There is usually some awareness that anxiety has become a problem, whether that is self-identified or suggested by someone else who is affected by behaviours resulting from the anxiety.
Human beings are essentially animals who are hardwired to survive. Part of our hardwiring is our Fight/Flight/Freeze response to perceived threat. A part of our brain called the Amygdala receives information through our five senses and a rapid evaluation of the threat takes place. If a large bear were to come running towards us we could respond by either trying to fight it off or by running away (these are Hyper-Arousal responses). Another survival strategy is to play dead (Hypo-Arousal). Most predators have the instinct not to eat dead animals as they could be diseased. Our Fight/Flight/Freeze response is triggered by adrenaline (an excitatory hormone). Panic Disorder is an exaggerated response to perceived threats (whether external or internal) and is the experience of ongoing panic attacks. The NHS estimates that 1 in 100 people will suffer a panic attack in their lifetime. The symptoms of Panic Disorder (continuing surges of adrenaline lasting between 5 – 20 minutes) are immensely distressing. The symptoms are the same as those for General Anxiety plus physical feelings such as choking, chest pains and ringing in the ears. Also common is a feeling of becoming detached from one’s body, the situation and surroundings – this is know as depersonalisation. People with Panic Disorder can often fear losing control or losing their mind and fear dying.
Phobias are about avoidance. They can be either specific (rooted in childhood – where out of control feelings become hooked onto a specific thing) or complex (the two most common types of complex phobias are Social Phobia and Agoraphobia). The avoidance is a strategy to feel more in control, although this is an illusion and leads to a cycle of fear → avoidance → fear. Symptoms of Phobias are similar to those of Panic Disorder.
Sometimes anxiety can lead to self-medication with food, alcohol, drugs or compulsive soothing behaviours. This self-medication can cause further problems. Once you have recognised that you have a problem with anxiety it’s important to see your GP to discuss treatment options. Your GP can choose from a range of anti-depressants (anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression and some anti-depressants are designed to alleviate anxiety also), beta blockers and tranquilizers. They can also discuss with you whether counselling might be helpful.
One of the most disconcerting things about anxiety is not knowing why you are experiencing it. Knowledge is power and counselling can help you to learn about your anxiety and how it’s affecting you (and those close to you) and help you to explore what might be contributing to it. Realising the full impact of anxiety can often provide the motivation to address it and understanding it better can reduce the anxiety about being anxious, thus interrupting the negative cycle. Because you don’t live in a vacuum, helping you to find ways of getting your needs met can help you to feel more in control.
Anxiety can be overcome and life can become enjoyable again.