Anxiety may manifest in different ways for different people, but if you’ve ever experienced symptoms like sweaty palms, a tightness that makes it difficult to breathe, heart palpitations, or a feeling of panic that won’t go away, you’re not alone.
According to statistics released by Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health and wellbeing support organisation, 26.3% of Australians between the ages 16 to 85 have experienced an anxiety disorder. This translates to about 4.96 million Australians, which is no small number.
But what is anxiety? How does it affect one’s quality of life? Is there a way to control anxiety? This short guide breaks down these questions in an attempt to clear the air about anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is more than just stress or you being worried about a particular situation in your life. It may be a permanent or semi-permanent condition that makes it difficult for you to cope with other aspects of your life. Panic attacks may also be caused by an anxiety disorder.
A good way of distinguishing between anxiety and temporary stress or worry is that the latter will usually go away once you remove the primary source of stress or worry. For example, if you have an important event coming up, it is natural to be stressed or nervous about said event. Once the event passes, these feelings too should dissipate.
However, when you feel anxious without any specific reason, or if you find these feelings constantly resurfacing, making it difficult to focus on other things, it might be time to seek professional help.
How does Anxiety develop?
Anxiety usually does not develop overnight or as a result of a single factor. Anxiety may start as a temporary feeling but may go on to develop as a persistent condition.
Anxiety may develop due to hereditary causes, such as a family history of mental health conditions. This phenomenon is called “Anxiety Sensitivity”. Experts are still studying whether inherited genes lead to anxiety sensitivity or if this is a condition based on observed behaviour. It may also be due to exposure to constant stressful situations, such as something at work or school. Abuse is also considered to be a huge trigger, including childhood trauma.
A study released in 2016 found that pathological anxiety and chronic stress may promote structural degeneration and impaired functioning of parts of the brain (the hippocampus and the PFC), which could result in an increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, such as dementia and depression.
When to Seek Professional Help?
Anxiety can quickly become a debilitating condition that can have a huge impact on the quality of your life. Since anxiety manifests differently for different people, there are diverse therapies to treat this condition.
Doctors will first diagnose your condition, usually with the help of detailed questionnaires. The answers you provide may be matched against criteria that are listed in the DSM-5, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is a book used by health professionals to help them to identify and correctly diagnose mental health conditions.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) may be one of the first suggestions made to you. CBT attempts to change the behavioural patterns within you that may trigger your anxiety. There are other forms of psychological therapy, such as interpersonal therapy, mindfulness, and narrative therapy.
Medication may also be prescribed, including antidepressants, depending on how chronic your condition may be.
To a certain extent, anxiety can be managed through self-care, such as following a regular exercise routine and pursuing hobbies and interests. This will help boost your levels of serotonin, aka, your mood stabilising hormone.
Practising controlled breathing exercises and using distraction techniques like counting to a certain number or counting backwards may also help.
Of course, if you feel that your anxiety is getting the better of you, it is best to consult a health professional as soon as possible. Putting off seeing someone will only perhaps exacerbate the condition.
There are countless resources and support groups online that may help. The important thing to remember is that you do not have to face this alone.