Anxiety is the body’s response to anything we perceive as threatening or dangerous. It’s normal, therefore, for you to feel anxious when you have to deal with unfamiliar experiences or stressful situations. Things like starting a fresh job, taking an exam or going into the hospital all can make us feel anxious. In recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened us all, and most people felt an increased level of anxiety.
Moderate levels of anxiety in situations like these are helpful for us. It helps us perform well and prepares us to deal with an emergency.
When anxiety becomes a problemHowever, when our anxiety levels get too high, we face all kinds of difficulties. When we get very anxious, a part of the brain known as the amygdala becomes more activated, triggering the body’s ‘fire-alarm’. When this happens, our body’s release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin as we prepare to tackle the perceived threat. Our hippocampus (the part of the brain that facilitates rational thinking) goes ‘offline’, making it harder to think straight and to make sound, rational judgements. Sometimes, often because of trauma, our internal ‘fire-alarm’ becomes oversensitive and gets triggered when there is no actual danger. When that happens, you might feel you’re always on edge, jumpy and worried by everything. Many people suffer from a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) where their anxiety has no particular focus and is not directly linked to recent events. Others find their anxiety does a particular focus: health or social anxiety, for example.
Anxiety is very commonAccording to National Institute of Mental Health estimated that 19% of adults and 32% of adolescents suffered from anxiety disorders in 2013 and that 31% of all adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
What does anxiety feel like?The symptoms of anxiety can be very worrying in themselves. Physical symptoms include:
- rapid heartbeat
- shortness of breath
- tightening of the chest
- dryness of the mouth
- butterflies in the stomach
- need to urinate
- loose bowels
- feeling tense or agitated
- fear of losing control
- feelings of dread or impending doom
- being irritable
- feeling detached or disconnected (from others or the world)
Am I going to die?Some physical sensations associated with anxiety are like those often associated with heart attacks–for example, chest pains, rapid breathing, and pins and needles. As a result, it is not unusual for people experiencing anxiety or attacks to convince themselves that they are about to die. No one has ever died from a panic attack. The symptoms you are experiencing are just the body’s normal response to adrenalin, one of the stress hormones. While anxiety/panic attacks are frightening and very unpleasant, they are not harmful, and they will pass. However, we would recommend you seek medical help if your symptoms do not pass.
How can I help myself?Well-meaning people who have never suffered from anxiety might tell you to “just stop worrying” or to “snap out of it”.
“Just snap out of it,” doesn’t work.If only it were that simple. If it were, you would not be suffering like you are. All such well-intended comments achieve is to make you feel worse about yourself because you can’t pull yourself out of it (and you assume others can). “Snapping out of it” just doesn’t work.
So what can I do?Okay, while you can’t just “snap out of it”, there are some things you can do to help yourself. These include:
- talking through your worries with a trusted friend
- facing the things you’re afraid of, overcoming the fear
- identifying your anxiety and the things that trigger it so you can develop effective ways to overcome your fears
- use breathing exercises, relaxations, and meditations to help you relax
- using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT, also known as tapping) to help you relax and manage your anxiety
- reviewing your lifestyle, particularly diet, exercise, and alcohol consumption–these can affect how you feel
Beyond Self-HelpWhile self-help strategies can help in the short term, mild-to-moderate anxiety, recurring, chronic or severe anxiety may need professional help.
Counselling can help you:
- understand your anxiety and what might be causing it
- recognise, manage and reduce the physical symptoms associated with your anxiety
- challenge and reframe any unhelpful thinking that is feeding your anxiety
- give you new, practical and effective tools that you can use in your daily life to help manage your mood