What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is characterised by feelings of fear or excessive worry and/or negative thoughts, as well as uncomfortable bodily sensations such as trembling, irregular breathing, racing heart, upset stomach, muscle tension in the chest, neck and shoulders.
Many of us have experienced feelings of fear or worry from time to time. Short-term or acute anxiety can be a useful and protective function. For instance, when we feel threatened, or in danger, the part of the brain, called the Amygdala, begins to fire off, and we go into what’s called “fight or flight” mode.
In an instant, our body reacts by increasing our heart rate, pumping adrenaline through our body, and our muscles tense up. This is powerful if we need to fight off real danger, however it's also quite taxing on the body.
How anxiety affects the body
Signs and symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can trigger 'racing thoughts', excessive worry or negative thinking such as "I can't cope" "It will be a disaster" "I'm a failure". The intensity of the worry is out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the anticipated event(s).
When faced with a situation of fear or threat (whether perceived or real), the common response is to avoid or flee the situation as quickly as possible.
Common 'types' of anxiety
Phobia is an intense fear of a particular object or situation. Often the person will go to great lengths to avoid coming into contact with the feared object or situation, such as dogs, snakes, spiders, travelling in an elevator or aeroplane etc.
A panic attack is a more intense and unpleasant experience of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The experience is like a ‘wave’ of uncontrollable anxiety, combined with a range of physical symptoms. A panic attack is not life-threatening, even though it might feel this way, and it is not an indication of a “mental breakdown”.
A person who experiences generalised anxiety, feels anxious on more days than not, excessively worrying about lots of different things and in different situations for a period of six months or more.
Other conditions where anxiety is present include Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
What influences anxiety?
There is no one single cause per se, there are many contributing factors for anxiety that interact and influence each other.
Genetic and/or hereditary (Eg. family history of mental illness)
Drug, alcohol or medication effects
Physical health problems (eg. heart condition, spinal cord injury)
SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT FACTORS
Traumatic family upbringing (eg. childhood trauma)
Stressful home environment Homelessness
Ongoing relationship conflict or domestic violence
Stressful work environment or unemployment
Bullying, isolation or social difficulties Lack of education
Limited access to services
Highly sensitive, passive or shy personality type or temperament Poor coping skills
Poor interpersonal skills
Other mental illness diagnosis (eg. PTSD, OCD, Depression, Bi-Polar disorder)
When should I seek professional help?
Persistent feelings of worry or fear accompanied by repeated avoidance of situations, people, events or activities, for more days than not over a period of months – can make it hard to cope with daily life.
If anxiety continues for a long period of time or is interfering with you enjoying a healthy and meaningful life, it is worth seeking professional help.
A mental health professional, like a qualified psychologist, can help you identify behaviours and situations that are contributing to your anxiety, and help you to make changes to the things that are within your control. Seeking help can be one way to manage your anxiety effectively.