Many of us know how anxiety feels like and have experienced, at least once in our lives, an event that made our heart race, palms sweat, and kept us up at night. Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress, warning us that we are in a dangerous situation. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety has offered humans an advantage: worrying that a predator might attack the settlement made our ancestors more cautious, take fewer risks, and helped them survive. We don’t have the same dangers around today, but we do still experience anxiety during events that we perceive as stressful, such as before an exam. Within normal limits, anxiety can be helpful. For example, anxiety before an exam can increase your alertness and make you do your best.
However, when you experience feelings of stress and unease constantly, even during normal, day-to-day events, anxiety can become overbearing. It can make you feel tired, affect your ability to focus, change the way you interact with other people, and prevent you from trying new things.
Anxiety is an emotion of distress, uneasiness, and worry for future events. When we experience anxiety, we often feel inner turmoil regarding seemingly uncontrollable events. Anxiety may be accompanied by nervous behaviours, such as biting your nails, feeling the urge to move your legs, or pacing up and down the room.
Experiencing anxiety before a job interview or when speaking in public is completely normal and shouldn’t be a cause of concern. However, if normal everyday situations start to feel threatening, and you experience anxiety constantly, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
If anxiety is the main symptom, that is called Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), but anxiety can also be part of a bigger umbrella of symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as social anxiety disorder, phobias, or PTSD.
It’s important to point out that anxiety is not the same as fear. If fear is usually a short-lived feeling, oriented towards a clear person or event that goes away as soon as the situation is resolved, anxiety can last for months, even years. Anxiety is focused on a vague threat that could happen in the future and may force you to withdraw yourself from various situations.
In the past years, the incidence of anxiety disorders has risen dramatically. According to NHS data, 6 in 100 people are diagnosed with GAD in the UK any given week, and the number of people with anxiety disorders has increased by 20% between 1993 and 2014. Although anxiety can affect people of all genders, more women are diagnosed with GAD than men, and the disorder is more common in the 35-59 age segment.
Anxiety is the most common mental health concern, affecting up to 5% of the total UK population.
If you suffer from anxiety, you may experience both physical and emotional symptoms.
Physical symptoms include:
The emotional effects of anxiety include:
People who are struggling with anxiety often describe their situation as if they are trapped: when one source of anxiety disappears, they soon find a new reason to be worried, and that prevents them from seeking new experiences. In more severe cases, anxiety may even stop you from going out, attending family gatherings, making friends, or performing at work.
At first, avoiding situations that trigger anxiety may seem like a good way to cope but, in the long run, avoidance only fuels anxiety and makes you feel overwhelmed.
Scientists still aren’t sure what causes anxiety, but they have identified several factors that may make someone prone to anxiety disorders:
Managing anxiety symptoms is important not just for your emotional wellbeing but also for your general health. Studies have shown that untreated anxiety may lead to serious health complications, such as high blood pressure. It can weaken your immune system and make you more prone to infections, cause weight fluctuations, and lead to memory loss.
In the long run, anxiety can affect your quality of life and stop you from growing as a person because you’re too worried about what could happen that you cannot enjoy the present moment. This is why it’s important to seek help and talk about your symptoms with a professional therapist, who can tell you if what you are feeling is normal or a sign of GAD.
Fortunately, anxiety can be kept under control, and you can even manage the symptoms by making a few lifestyle changes. Start by removing unhealthy coping mechanisms from your life, such as smoking and alcohol abuse, because although they might calm you down in the short term, they cause more problems in the long run. Other positive changes include exercising regularly and spending more time in nature, both of which have been scientifically proven to ease anxiety. Mindfulness exercises, in the form of gardening, breathing exercises or yoga, can also help.
But the most powerful tool in dealing with anxiety is therapy. During therapy sessions, not only do you have the opportunity to learn ways of managing anxiety, but also examine the events that triggered anxiety and change negative thought patterns.