Anxiety – that uncomfortable, nagging, nervous feeling that won’t let you settle or concentrate.
Being anxious can range from a little worry over an upcoming event or something that’s beyond your comfort zone, to a full-blown medical condition.
In this article we talk about how to overcome mild to moderate anxiety, so that you can feel more confident and comfortable in everyday situations. See the links at the end for help with more severe problems.
So, what is anxiety anyway?
Anxiety is a reaction to stress. It’s part of our ‘fight or flight’ reaction that was designed to save our lives by making us more alert.
A little stress and anxiety normal and is good for us. It can help:
- Get things done if there’s a deadline looming,
- Sharpen our performance at an interview, on stage or on a date,
- Focus our priorities on a busy day.
But too much anxiety, or anxiety that’s out of proportion to the stressor, is not helpful. Some people find this is more of a problem and it interferes with their lives every day.
The symptoms of short-term (acute) anxiety include:
- Fast heart rate/palpitations
- Feeling unable to get your breath/fast breathing
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth.
These symptoms are caused by the body’s physiology: the effects of its stress hormones (adrenaline/epinephrine), and the nervous system response to stress.
What’s the difference between normal anxiety and a mental health problem?
Normal anxiety comes and goes. Generally we know what causes it and when the cause has passed, the anxiety goes away.
However, a feeling of fear or nervousness that is more difficult to control, is unpredictable or interferes with your daily life can mean something more serious. You may have feelings that are more excessive than you would expect given the situation, or feelings that have no obvious cause.
Anxiety disorders include:
- Phobias – having an overwhelming fear of something that isn’t actually threatening.
- Panic disorder – having regular panic attacks.
- Social anxiety – feeling overly anxious in social situations.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – fears that lead to obsessions (eg thoughts that cause anxiety) and compulsions (eg thoughts and/or actions you feel you have to repeat because of the obsessive fear)
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – ordinary worries won’t go away and interfere with daily living.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – not now classified as an anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Society, its symptoms include severe anxiety following a life-threatening or traumatic event.
According to the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) about 15% of people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. More women than men experience it, and the average age for the onset of this sort of problem is 11 years.
The important message here is that you’re not alone.
Depression and anxiety often occur together and it’s thought that about half of people with an anxiety disorder also have depression. As well as the symptoms above, the longer-term symptoms of both depression and anxiety include:
- Not being able to sleep
- Wanting to be alone
- Difficulty concentrating.
How can I treat my anxiety without taking drugs?
For simple day-to-day stresses that leave you feeling nervous or jumpy, try these exercises. One aims to get the there-and-then stress under control and the other aims to help you feel more confident about things that stress you out in the longer term.
Simple exercises for anxiety:
- Wherever you are, whether you’re walking, on the train or lying in bed, take a long breath in while you count to 5. 1…2…3…4…5. Now hold the breath for a count of 5. 1…2…3…4…5. Now let the breath go slowly, for the count of 5. 1…2…3…4…5. Repeat this until you start to feel calmer.
Stop if you start to feel dizzy or light headed.
This works by bringing you into the moment, because it’s difficult to think about anything else while you have to think about counting and breathing. It also calms the fight or flight response’s hormones.
- Take a moment to write about a stressful or difficult event from your past that you’ve overcome. It doesn’t need to be a major event and could just be something like your first date with your now-wife or a job interview. Now write down how you managed the event and the worry/anxiety around it. Then write down how you feel about the event now. Think of other events and do the same process – how you coped and how you feel now. You will begin to see that your coping strategies and abilities are far better than you worried they were!
Understanding your stress and that it is ‘only’ stress is a step in the right direction. Many people worry that the symptoms they’re experiencing are signs of a physical illness, even a heart attack. A check-up with your physician will help here. He or she may be able to recommend other non-medicine stress relievers.
Mindfulness for anxiety.
Mindfulness is a hot topic in health and wellness. It is simply the powerful practice of being present with your mind focused in the moment. You calmly acknowledge the thoughts and physical and emotional feelings you have at that moment, but don’t react to them.
This takes some practice but can be extended to all aspects of daily life, from eating and diet, work practices and sex.
There’s a link at the bottom of the page for more on mindfulness
Meditation for anxiety.
The benefits of meditation on mental and physical health are reported to be almost endless.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines meditation as:
“Focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”
So, a bit like mindfulness, it makes the brain detach itself from unpleasant sensations and focus on something else. There’s a link to 2 simple meditation techniques at the bottom of the page.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for anxiety.
For more moderate and persistent anxiety, CBT can help.
CBT is a talking therapy that’s based on the idea that some ways of thinking can trigger some mental health problems.
During a course of sessions, a therapist will help you understand and explore your thought patterns, especially those which are unhelpful or damaging and can lead to your anxiety. These are current thought processes about present or past events – CBT isn’t like psychoanalysis and doesn’t look into your past history.
You may be asked to keep a diary of these thoughts to discuss at your weekly sessions.
Your general practitioner will have a contact list of CBT practitioners in your area.
Counselling for anxiety.
Talking therapies like counselling and CBT help a person get perspective on and manage their anxiety.
A trained counsellor will be able to listen to your problem and help you manage it effectively. Your general practitioner will have a list of local and accredited counselors you can trust.
Anxiety management courses.
These aren’t available in all areas but they are good for some conditions and anxieties.
Specific courses give support and teach people coping strategies, how to relax and how to problem-solve. Some are in one-to-one sessions and others are in a group setting. Group settings are useful as you have the chance to meet and learn from others with similar problems.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression
National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nami.org
Be Mindful: http://bemindful.co.uk
Two Meditation Techniques for Beginners: http://modernhealthandfitness.com/2-meditation-techniques-for-beginners