What is anxiety? (and what helps)

This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak. An article specific to COVID and anxiety is here.

In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the U.K.  In England women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men. (Source: MHFA)

But what is it and what can we do about it?

Anxiety can be confused with worry but it’s often more intense, a feeling as if something really bad is about to happen.

Unlike the temporary worry you may get when waiting for news of exam results, anxiety can be persistent, relentless thoughts which come from ‘nowhere’, although you may have some idea what’s likely to have triggered them.  These thoughts won’t go away and can often be accompanied by a sense of dread or foreboding.

Anxiety might feel like a dark nagging cloud, a feeling that can be overwhelming, preventing people from getting excited about positive things, in the fear that it’s all about to go horribly 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 which help you to feel more in control, over situations which actually you may have no control over at all.

Symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • palpitations
  • feeling sick
  • tension in the muscles
  • headaches
  • difficulty sleeping
  • feeling a desire to withdraw or hide
  • avoiding – including people or places (because you believe then you, or someone you care about, won’t get hurt)

In some cases, these may be accompanied by panic attacks.

For some people, anxiety presents itself in the form of repetitive thoughts accompanied by rituals carried out in an effort to get the thought or situation “right” – this may be diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This may be by checking (e.g. that lights are switched off “properly” by repeatedly turning them on and off), using symmetry (e.g. lining up cans in a cupboard so they all face the “right” way) or through hygiene, making sure that skin isn’t contaminated by dust, dirt, bacteria or something else.

What causes it?

There could be a number of reasons someone experiences anxiety. For example, some researchers argue that growing up with other anxious people can cause anxiety,  but we also know that those who have been neglected or treated you 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 your diet is can also impact your mood, as well as other things you put in your body like drugs and alcohol.  Those who have been subjected to traumatic events can suffer with anxiety, and when accompanied by signs such as flashbacks and nightmares, this may be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What can help?

Making sure you have a healthy diet is one step to managing anxiety, as is finding someone you can trust to talk with about how you feel.  Many people 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, as is creating a ‘not knowing plan’.  Mindfulness can also be a helpful way to manage your mood.  You may also find a therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helpful or a self-soothing activity like the one below.

If you know 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.  Here is an article on how to help someone you’re worried about.

It is possible to manage anxiety helpfully.  Reach out to people who may be able to help; there is a list of agencies here.

Blog header Image: everythingzoomer

Published by Delphi Ellis

Therapeutic Counsellor, Well-being Trainer and Mindfulness Practitioner working with grief and mental health. Explores dreams on telly. Avid tea drinker. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ 2006 - 21

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