What is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be the main symptom of several conditions, including:
- Panic Disorder
- Phobias – such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
Do you remember taking an important exam, or meeting somebody for the first time? Perhaps needing to make a speech or perform in some way.
For some people, anxiety or anxious feelings start when a spider appears or when being asked to get in a lift, or go on a plane.
What does anxiety feel like?
Can’t think straight
Need to use the toilet
Wanting to leave the area and get far away
Palms feel sweaty
Feeling jittery and like you want to move around
Want to cry or get upset
Can’t find the words to talk about how you are feeling
Imagine being faced with something that we perceive as dangerous …. Let’s pretend that you have a fear of dogs and then suddenly see one barking / growling / straining at the lead on the other side of the road.
Our brain wants us to stay safe and stay alive and will do all it can to protect us when we are faced with a situation that is potentially dangerous. The brain has evolved over thousands of years but still responds in the same way from all those years ago. We go into a state of Fight, Flight or Freeze.
At the back of our head, there is a small part of the brain called the Amygdala. When we are faced with a situation that we perceive as dangerous– the amygdala sends a message down to our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline.
Adrenaline puts us in to the ‘fight or flight response mechanism’ so that we can protect ourselves from danger. So we see the dog and our bodies are prepared to run away quickly or fight hard. Whilst the dog is there (the dangerous situation), adrenaline will continues to pump through our body until that danger has gone away. When the dog goes away, our adrenal glands stop pumping adrenaline into us.
Our brains have learnt that when we see dogs, we need adrenaline in order to survive the situation. If we are entering into an anxiety provoking situation that we have experienced before – then it sends a message to our amygdala to remind us that adrenaline was previously needed, so our bodies will fill back up with adrenaline whilst in the situation.
What does adrenaline do?
To be able to run fast or fight hard – the body needs speed and strength. Adrenaline ensure that the brain, nerves and heart receive extra blood. Your blood pressure goes up, along with your heart rate. When the adrenal glands switch off, remaining adrenaline will become stress cortisol in the blood.
No. If you see a monster coming towards you – you want your reactions to tell you to run, climb a tree and escape. You don’t want your reactions to say ‘it is probably nothing’. Anxiety keeps us safe. It is just that sometimes our brains and bodies tell us that situations are more dangerous that they need to be, which can leave us feeling anxious and stressed.
What does it feel like to live with anxiety?
Some people feel like they are constantly aware of danger or being on guard for stressful situations. If you are in a state of hyper-vigilance or perhaps constantly triggering anxiety responses to daily situations – then it places a toll on your mind and body. Too much stress can lead to emotional, physical and psychological issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure and chest pains. People under stress are likely to resort to poor lifestyle choices including poor eating, lack of exercise and increased nicotine / alcohol levels.
If you are having a reaction every time you see a dog, have to get in a lift, make a speech, make a phone call (or whatever it is that bothers YOU), then it is perhaps time to change that reaction with support from a therapist.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
GAD is a common condition, estimated to affect up to 5% of the UK population. GAD causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues without any particular reason to worry. A person living with GAD might always expect things to go wrong or a disaster to happen.
How can anxiety affect your body & life?
Physical signs & symptoms (and reasons why you may get them)
The first thing that might happen – you breathe faster. You are instinctively getting more oxygen into your body. Your heart beats faster to get that oxygen moving around quickly. Your blood pressure increases.
You may feel dizzy from your blood pressure and extra oxygen in your system. Some people tense their muscles, or grind their teeth, causing aches and pains. When you are in a state of reaction, your body changes your stomach gases (when “fighting for your life”, your body doesn’t want to worry about digesting your last meal!)
Your body wants to be cool if you are running, so you may start to sweat. The symptom that most people dislike is the panic attack. The extra oxygen and rapid breathing doesn’t help!
Do you recognise any of these emotional signs?
Finding it hard to make decisions, remember things or concentrate,
Lost desire to be creative or laugh at jokes
Getting angry, tearful, feeling depressed or powerless, having moodswings
Increased alcohol, drugs or cigarettes to cope with feelings
Withdrawal from relationships or social situations
How can anxiety affect you day to day?
At work or study – difficulty engaging with work colleagues, or being able to concentrate on tasks. Anxiety about doing things wrong, or feeling fatigued or exhausted or not being able to cope. Increased time off work as it feels too difficult to be in the work place at times.
Lifestyle choices – Increase in use of nicotine, drugs or alcohol as a coping or ‘switch off’ mechanism. Changes to eating habits leading to weight loss or gain.
Social life – Find it harder to go to social events or interact with friends and family.
Physical health – irregular sleeping patterns, gastric issues, fatigue plus increased vulnerability to the coughs and colds through feeling generally rundown and exhausted. Headaches, muscle pain and tension.
Financial matters – potentially reduced income from not working or inability to cope with bills and payments.
You don’t have to live with anxiety. See your doctor and check out these self help tips
10 Top Tips to manage anxiety & panic attacks
Some of these top tips will help you manage anxiety & panic attacks.
- Exercise– Following a burst of anxiety, adrenaline and stress cortisol lasts in the blood for up to 24 hours. This can be burnt off through exercise. So get out and get some fresh air. Even if it’s a gentle walk around the block, it will help change your mindset
- Eat healthily– even though you may not feel hungry, try to go for healthier options rather than the sugar fix through chocolate, or overloading your plate as a comfort measure.
- Practice mindfulness– deep and slow breathing, meditation or learn self hypnosis
- Get creative– doing a jigsaw, reading a book or buying some colouring books. Let your brain switch off from the problems
- Talk to a friend– get your concerns off your chest and talk through what is worrying you.
- See your GP– sometimes medication can help regulate your system, whilst you deal with the problems. Your GP can rule out some possible physical health reasons so book an appointment.
- Go to a spa, or treat yourself. Having a pamper session of a massage or a facial and feel those muscles unwind
- Practice collar bone breathing or another breathing technique. Put a stop to all of the extra oxygen will help you calm quicker
- Morning writing
- Watch out for your caffeine intake. Caffeine increases the heart rate which sends a false message to your brain that there is something to be anxious about.