From time to time, certain events in your life can make you feel scared, nervous, or apprehensive – a job interview, an exam, the first day at a new job, going to the doctor, these are examples of cases when feeling anxious is normal, and they can even motivate you to try your hardest. However, when the feelings of fear and apprehension appear every day for apparently no reason, to the point where they interfere with your daily life, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern, affecting millions of people in the UK. They can happen to anyone, regardless of age and gender, but women are more prone to experiencing anxiety than men, and the highest prevalence is between ages 35 to 59.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are five types of anxiety disorders:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which manifests as excessive worry or fear that’s not related to a specific event.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which manifests as recurrent obsessions and repeating certain rituals, or compulsions, which provide temporary relief from anxiety (for example, cleaning, counting, or checking locked doors).
Panic disorder, which manifests as episodes of intense fear, or phobia.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which manifests as anxiety after a traumatic episode that caused physical or mental harm. PTSD is often associated with war veterans, but it can also appear after being involved in an accident, natural disaster, or after an assault.
Social Anxiety Disorder manifests when you are in social situations, such as being in a room with unknown people or speaking in public. In severe cases, social anxiety disorder can appear any time you are around other people.
Scientists are unsure as to what causes anxiety. In many cases, people may start to experience symptoms without a clear reason while, other times, anxiety may be linked to these known causes:
A chemical imbalance in the brain, more specifically the hormones serotonin and noradrenaline, which regulate moods
Hyperactivity in the area of the brain that regulates emotions and behaviour
Genetics. If a relative has an anxiety disorder, you are five times more susceptible towards having it too.
Being exposed to traumatic experiences as a child
Drug or alcohol abuse
Long-term health conditions (cancer, arthritis, etc.)
Prolonged exposure to stressful factors
The biggest difference between normal anxiety and anxiety disorder is that the former is tied to a certain challenging event (such as a job interview) and it goes away, whereas the latter appears without an apparent reason and you experience it constantly, sometimes to the point where you can no longer enjoy daily life and connect with your loved ones. More often than not, people who have anxiety feel scared and distressed all the time, without it being caused by a specific event. Anxiety can make you avoid certain situations, such as being outside in crowded places.
Anxiety manifests in different ways, depending on the person. At a physical level, anxiety causes rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, an upset stomach, dry mouth, and difficulty breathing. As for mental symptoms, those can range from restlessness and inability to focus to insomnia and excessive worrying. Symptoms can intensify when coming in contact with triggers that cause anxiety. For example, a person who has social anxiety will have heart palpitations when going to a social event or even when they have to leave the house.
People with anxiety disorder can also experience anxiety attacks – these are short, intense episodes of fear and panic. They can appear as a result of a stressful event (getting stuck in an elevator or taking an exam), but they can also happen out of the blue.
Since there are several types of anxiety disorders, and each person experiences different symptoms, anxiety attacks don’t look the same for everyone. Sometimes, you may not notice that someone is having one of these attacks; other times, the symptoms are so intense that they can be mistaken for a heart attack.
The symptoms of an anxiety attack may include:
Palpitations and chest pain
Sweating, clammy hands
Chills or hot flashes
Nausea or cramps
Feeling that you’re about to pass out
A surge of intense panic
Because anxiety manifests differently from person to person, there are several ways to approach treatment. In mild anxiety cases, certain lifestyle changes can be enough, such as:
Reducing caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol intake
Maintaining a consistent sleeping schedule
Being physically active
Practising relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation
Building a support network of friends and family.
However, there are also moderate or severe cases when lifestyle changes are not enough to manage and reduce anxiety. In these cases, the best course of action is to connect with a professional therapist who can help you navigate available treatments. Contrary to common belief, treatment doesn’t just refer to drugs. Medication may be used to balance brain chemistry and prevent panic attacks, but prescribing them isn’t the universal solution. Your therapist may also focus on psychotherapy. Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy is a way of helping you understand what triggers anxiety in your case, managing the symptoms, and building healthy coping mechanisms.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, it’s important to seek help as quickly as possible because anxiety can have complications. When left untreated for long periods, anxiety harms your physical and mental health and can lead to poor quality of life. A professional therapist can help you understand your risk factors and prevent the symptoms of anxiety from controlling your life.