A staggering 16% of the population suffer with anxiety at any one time, making it one of the most common mental health problems in the UK. So what is anxiety, why does it have such a profound effect on our lives and what can we do about it?
We all experience a mild form of anxiety at some point in our lives when faced with particularly stressful situations, such as a job interview or giving a speech. Anxiety disorders however are severe and can disrupt our day-to-day lives. Anxiety can be brought on by a fear of something that happened, or what we think happened and dread happening again.
Types of anxiety disorder
- Generalised anxiety disorder– Individuals suffering from generalised anxiety disorder often anticipate tragedy and excessively worry about lots of things. Generalised anxiety disorder interferes with daily life and is usually diagnosed when an individual spends at least six months worrying disproportionately about normal everyday problems. Other minor issues such as errands or appointments can also cause anxiety and for some, just getting through the day can be extremely stressful.
- Panic disorder – Panic disorder is characterised by terror, which strikes suddenly without warning. Panic attacks are a common symptom of panic disorder, but not everyone who has a panic attack will develop panic disorder. Panic disorder is much more common than is generally recognised and affects a large proportion of the population.
- Social anxiety disorder – Social anxiety disorder is defined as extreme anxiety and discomfort in social situations. According to some research, social anxiety (also known as social phobia) is the third most common psychiatric disorder after depression and alcoholism. Fear of being around other people, having to interact with them and being judged negatively by them are the common signs of social anxiety.
We can also have specific anxiety about something such as anxiety about flying, driving or giving a speech etc. But this not classed as a disorder.
Anxiety, sadly, goes hand in hand with depression.
As there are different types of anxiety, there are a number of different symptoms, however the most common include:
- dizziness and feeling light headed
- reduced attention span
- difficulty in concentrating
- loss of sexual interest
- loss of appetite
- muscle tension
- difficulty breathing
- a tight feeling in the chest
- difficulty sleeping
- poor performance at work
- a need to escape
- a need to drink more alcohol
- craving sugary, refined foods
Emotionally you may feel overwhelmed, tearful, agitated and angry with an increased lack of confidence. Anxious people report feeling preoccupied and apprehensive with a tendency to worry about the future and everything else.
Causes of anxiety
As each individual reacts differently to different pressures, determining one cause of anxiety is difficult. Research suggests there are a number of contributing factors, such as:
- Brain chemistry – Some medication seems to alter the chemical imbalances in some individual’s brains, suggesting that there could be a chemical imbalance link to anxiety.
- Hereditary – Evidence suggests that anxiety can run in families. However evidence is not clear as to whether genetic factors account for the disorder or whether similar environments and life experiences contribute to its cause.
- Life experiences – The development of anxiety disorders is believed to be linked to long term exposure to abuse, poverty, violence or drugs.
- Personality – Research suggests that personality types may determine whether or not you are susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder. Every one of my anxiety clients was bullied at school. Every single one. Some people are just less resilient, more fragile and simply don’t cope with things as well.
Anxiety can be completely overwhelming, uneasy and fear inducing – both emotionally and physically. When we feel anxious, our heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate increases and this can lead to panic attacks.
Why does anxiety have such a profound effect on our lives?
When our ancestors lived primitively they faced sometimes daily threats to their existence. Back then their main aim was survival, making sure their offspring were kept safe so that they could pass their genes on. Our intellectual mind had not evolved to how it is today and so this primitive brain was only there to keep us alive. If they were suddenly faced with a dangerous animal or an angry tribesman the brain would react by raising the heart rate and flooding the brain with the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol; all to help them get out of there as soon as possible!
So this was a very helpful response and it’s still very useful today. When we are faced with a dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation our primitive brain kicks in and will make us react before we’ve even had time to think about it! Your brain doesn’t want you to over-think in a crisis situation and effectively locks down your intellectual mind so these reactions don’t have any intellectual basis behind them.
The primitive brain also can’t differentiate between real and imagined threats, nor can it categorise threats into levels of seriousness. What this means is that the brain can’t tell the difference between an actual life threatening situation and something that makes you feel anxious; such as being late for an important meeting or having a deadline you have to meet.
Unfortunately, we cannot successfully go about our day to day business constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is exhausting and can lead to sleep disruptions, nausea, headaches, sweating, irregular heartbeat, a busy mind, constant negative thinking and lack of concentration. It can also cause all sorts of distress to our internal organs, interfering with our blood sugar levels, immunity and metabolism.
If anxiety goes up, the same responses happen in the brain and the intellectual mind is locked down. This means you are unable to think rationally and clearly about the situation and your brain is pumping out chemicals to make you feel like you are under threat. And this is what most anxiety sufferers experience. This primitive response also makes the sufferer obsessive and hyper-vigilant; they end up permanently on red alert.
Anxiety can also manifest itself in many different physical ways; IBS, insomnia, over-eating, skin complaints… the list goes on and on.
When you feel anxious, your desire to exercise tends to decrease and people feel low in energy and sluggish. Or alternatively, they may feel wired and unable to switch off.
When anxiety goes on for too long a period, it can seriously shorten your life, in some cases, by up to 10 years. Stress and anxiety are known to contribute to poor health with diseases and conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure.
Feeling overwhelmed and out of control affects your performance at work and your decision making in every area of our life. Not to mention your happiness.
Have you noticed that when you are feeling stressed, anxious and out of control it affects your thought patterns? You may have a tendency towards thinking more negatively, that there is no way out, with apparently few choices. This is why it goes hand in hand with depression.
Enough of the bad news – what can we do about it?
There are lots of natural things that can help decrease anxiety levels- you can spend just a few minutes doing some of these things to decrease your adrenaline and cortisol levels:
- talking things through with someone you love and trust
- breathing exercises
- listening to music
- physical exercise
- focusing on the positives
- having reassuring thoughts
- eating a healthy diet
- stroking a pet
- having cuddles/hugs
- being mindful
- making love
- having a massage
- going for a walk
- being out in nature/being by water
- cutting back on alcohol
- cutting back on/giving up caffeine
- cutting back on/giving up sugar
- having a mineral bath
- doing yoga or tai chi
By doing the activities above, we increase our feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters: serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins. Thus decreasing our adrenaline and cortisol and our level of anxiety.
Another more permanent way of dealing with anxiety is to have hypnotherapy. Please see my clinical hypnotherapy pages.
It is important to realise that anxiety is not a “thing” that you suffer; you must NOT see yourself as a victim. It is your own thought processes that are doing this to you and by taking as much control as you can (with a little help from your hypnotherapist) you really can empower yourself.
Overcoming anxiety not only helps you to live a happier life but it ripples onto everyone else you come into contact with. Making you a better partner, parent and employee or employer. It will improve every single one of your relationships. It’s also a great example to the people around you.
If you have anxiety don’t be hard on yourself. I guarantee there are thousands of others in the same boat. The only reason you have not recovered is because NO ONE HAS SHOWN YOU HOW TO.
Get in touch today and let me help you overcome anxiety and get on with your life.