What is anxiety (and what helps)?

⚠️ This article makes reference to trauma and some potential causes of anxiety which some may find triggering. This piece was written before the coronavirus outbreak but has been recently updated (2023). An article specific to COVID and anxiety is here.

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According to various reports, it’s been established that there are 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the U.K.. MHFA England suggest that women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men. Meanwhile, the Mental Health Foundation say a third of adults feel anxious about their financial situation, most likely because of the cost of living crisis. Their latest report also reveals that 45% of people with feelings of anxiety say they keep it a secret.

So what is anxiety and what can we do about it?

It’s important to say that an element of anxiety is normal, in the sense that it’s understandable to feel anxious about something that matters to you. You might be nervous about a first date or worried you might not succeed at a job interview. After the event, the feelings of anxiety may dissipate, especially if the date goes well, or you get the role you were hoping for.

When we suffer with anxiety though, it’s a much more intense feeling; some align it with a sense of dread. It’s sometimes referred to as “anticipated threat” because it’s the fear that something may happen. And, because of the way our brains work, it treats all threats as real, even if they aren’t. It can cause us to ruminate, to go over and over in our minds where something might go wrong, and we spiral – in my book, Answers In The Dark, I refer to this as “going down the plughole”, because it’s dark down there, and not easy to get back up. It can look a lot like the words “What if…?” such as “What if my car breaks down and I can’t get to work? What if I lose my job, and I can’t afford to eat?” Thoughts can be catastrophic and/or centred around our survival.

Unlike the temporary worry you might get, say, when waiting for news of exam results, anxiety can be persistent, relentless thoughts which seem to come from ‘nowhere’; you may know what’s triggered them but other times, it might feel like there’s no storyline at all in that moment. This is why it’s sometimes so hard to explain to someone what anxiety is like, because when they ask what you’re anxious about, you may not be able to articulate it straight away.  These thoughts may also be accompanied by a sense of foreboding, which is also difficult to define.

Anxiety then can feel like a dark cloud which can be overwhelming, which is why it can feel as destructive as depression. It may even prevent us from enjoying the moment, getting excited about things we really want to do, or even avoid some things altogether, in case it all goes wrong.  It’s a ‘bad feeling’ amplified many times.

Whilst it’s “normal” to worry about family, partners, work and finances, anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to affect your mood and your behaviour on a regular basis.  You may feel like you need to take certain actions, develop rituals or habits, which help you feel more in control, over situations which actually you may have no control over at all.

Signs of anxiety, where there’s no obvious medical cause, can include:

  • palpitations
  • feeling sick
  • tension in the muscles
  • headaches
  • difficulty sleeping
  • feeling a desire to withdraw or hide.

In some cases, these may be accompanied by panic attacks. Here’s a video from my YouTube channel.

What causes it?

There could be a number of reasons someone experiences anxiety. Some researchers argue that growing up with other anxious people can show up as anxiety in our lives,  but we also know that those who have been neglected or treated badly can suffer too.  It may be that traumatic life experiences mean you’re hyper-vigilant in your surroundings, developing coping mechanisms and feeling like you need to ‘prepare for the worst’. This may cause patterns of behaviour that don’t work for you, like isolating, avoiding or trying to control.

How healthy our diet is can also impact our mood, as well as other things we put in our body like drugs and alcohol.  

What can help?

You may be able to notice, through mindful awareness, what triggers your anxiety by starting to recognise when you’re not ok. Some people keep a diary to help them know when their Threat System is activated; this also helps them plan what they can do in those moments to find their way back to centre. The more you practice these activities when you’re calm (i.e. before you’re triggered), the more available they may be to you when you need them.

Making sure you have a healthy diet is one step to managing anxiety, as is finding someone you trust to talk with about how you feel.  Many people also find ‘positive distraction’ techniques like listening to music, arts and crafts or drawing can be useful to take their mind away from the intense feelings of worry, until those feelings dissipate.  Exercise is recognised to help improve mood, and you may also find it helpful to create a ‘not knowing plan’.   There’s also a self-soothing exercise on my YouTube channel which some find helpful.

If you know are worried about someone with anxiety, it can be useful to talk with them in a constructive way about what they need, offering to attend appointments with them if they’d find this useful.  Reassure them that you are there for them and that you want to help. You may also want to help them reach out to agencies who may be able to help. Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123 in the UK.

Remember that a certain amount of anxiety is normal, and see if you can start to notice when you’re not ok to create a plan to manage those moments.

Copyright Delphi Ellis, updated 2023

Published by Delphi

Delphi is a counsellor, speaker and author of Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal, out now on Amazon and Hive © All rights reserved.

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