I’ve decided to write a series of articles about anxiety to help people feel clear about what it is and how they might go about facing it.
As a practitioner I experience anxiety sometimes. Anxiety is a word to describe how we react to worry, fear and nervousness. Anxiety is confusing because it involves our thoughts, emotions and our body’s autonomic nervous system (automatic regulation). This means something physical happens to us and we feel as though we are not in control of our bodies and this can feel extremely scary at times and in the case of panic attacks, we might think we are dying.
As a counsellor I believe that self-awareness can be the key to choosing how we approach our feelings and thoughts about life. I title these articles ‘Enemy or teacher?’ because I want people to see their bodies not as limiting but as a source of knowledge.
I believe that to work through anxiety we first need to understand what it is, understand how we personally experience it, talk about it, source it, reason it and learn about how to manage it and reduce stress. It can be complex but is not unmanageable.
What is Stress?
Stress is hard to define to whether it is the cause or the response to outside influences. To help combat stress we can try to concentrate on managing the outside pressures and developing internal emotional resilience.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the body’s normal and natural response to help us avoid danger and motivate us to solve problems. It is a response which comes from the oldest part of our brains which helped us survive as primitive humans. When we face danger our body’s physiological response mechanisms kick in automatically causing:
Increase in Adrenaline Decrease in Digestion
Increase in blood pressure
Increase in breathing rate
Increase in Glucose energy release
Increase in pupil dilation
Increase in muscle tension
Increase in body temperature
Redirection of Blood to the brain
These mechanisms help us to:
See and hear better
Back in the days when we were being chased by sabre tooth tigers this automatic system reacted so that we could keep safe by fight, flight or freeze (play dead). They are still normal reactions to real life threatening dangers and when the situation has passed the body goes back to a calm state of being.
Mild anxiety can be useful to motivate us e.g. to prepare for exams or run for a bus pulling away. Anxiety is normal in threatening 21st century situations such as attending an interview or being diagnosed with an illness. However, just to note; some people can experience freeze reactions when in dangerous situations such as being attacked. This can be extremely traumatic and although a natural response by the body it causes much distress after the event is over and the person describes being paralysed and unable to fight back and often blames themselves for the reaction that they had no control over.
So when does anxiety become a mental health problem?
Abnormal anxiety is when the symptoms of anxiety do not fit with the perceived danger. We may think fearfully about situations or our environment which triggers our bodies into fight, flight or freeze reaction causing us to feel physical, psychological and behavioural effects which can range from a mild uneasiness to a terrifying panic attack. An anxiety disorder differs from normal anxiety in that is
-Is long lasting
-It interferes with a person’s work or relationships
People can experience anxiety in response to a range of things, for others it is a specific phobia of something. Some people experience panic attacks and others try to stop obsessive anxious thoughts by specifically doing things to stop them. There is a whole spectrum of anxiety!
General symptoms of Anxiety
Palpitations, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, flushing (cardiovascular)
Hyperventilation, shortness of breath (respiratory)
Dizziness, headache, sweating, tingling, numbness (neurological)
Choking, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea (gastrointestinal)
Muscle aches and pains (especially neck, shoulders, and lower back), restlessness, tremor and shaking (musculoskeletal)
Unrealistic and/or excessive fear about past or future events
Mind racing or going blank
Decreased concentration and memory
Difficulty making decisions
Irritability, impatience, anger
Restlessness, feeling on edge, nervousness
Tiredness, sleep disturbances, vivid dreams
Unwanted or repetitive thoughts
Avoidance of situations
Repetitive compulsive behaviour e.g. excessive checking
Distress in social situations
Urges to escape situations that cause discomfort (phobic behaviour)
Other contributors to anxiety symptoms
Some medical conditions (hypothyroidism, vitamin B12 deficiency, Seizures and heart conditions such as arrhythmias)
The side effects of certain prescription drugs
Certain non-prescription drugs (caffeine, amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy and LSD)
Although alcohol can act quickly to relieve symptoms of anxiety, long-term alcohol misuse and acute alcohol withdrawal often increase anxiety levels.
Caffeine give is a boost and increases feelings of alertness. In higher doses it produces symptoms similar to anxiety, disrupts sleep and can make panic attacks more likely.
There can be genetic links to tendencies towards anxiety
Other mental health difficulties such as depression
People in chronic pain
Anxiety is inconvenient, debilitating at times and can be scary but it can also be seen as a wakeup call to change. In my next few articles I will explain about some of the range of types of anxiety, treatments available and ways you can help yourself.