Everything You Want to Know About Anxiety

Anxiety can affect anyone, at any time. But it's how we manage it that counts.

Whether we’re high-flyers or simply trying to get by, the emotions are the same. Apprehension and unease, panic and even terror, anxiety spans a range of emotions. No one likes feeling that way, but it is part of our makeup. It can even be useful – a prompt to take a safer route home in the dark, or go the extra mile to get that crucial job offer. It’s only when anxiety changes from being a manageable response to life’s stresses and strains to being overwhelming that it becomes a problem. When anxious feelings refuse to leave or hijack us for no rational reason, when they become so intense they start taking over our lives, that’s when things start to get really hard.

The anxiety trap

Anxiety is a vicious circle, as anyone terrified of talking in public, or going to a big party, knows. If we feel shaky and nervous, we worry that people will notice.This raises our anxiety, making the shaking worse, and increasing our feelings of worry. This fear of becoming anxious can then set off the next anxiety attack. But by learning how to weaken the connections between situations that worry us, and our anxious reaction, we can help break that circle.

If anxiety is messing up your life, you are not alone. The Office for National Statistics estimates that nearly 5% of us have what’s known as generalised anxiety disorder at any one time – and there are lots of other common anxiety-related disorders (see below). The good news is there is plenty you can do manage your anxiety and get your life back on track.

Understand the triggers

Anxiety is a fear of what might happen rather than what is happening now – the danger is in our heads. When we feel under threat our brains release the hormone adrenaline. This focuses our mind on the danger and triggers physical changes such as faster breathing and tensed up muscles that increase our ability to protect ourselves or run away. This is what’s known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This makes sense if we are about to be run over by a bus. It was also handy back in the days when people lived in caves and hunted wild animals. The trouble is that most modern life challenges, such as taking exams or impressing a potential employer, don’t require a physical response, which can leave our bodies in overdrive.

All this pent up activity can feel very distressing. It can build up and overwhelm us, which is what happens when we get a panic attack. We can even mistake it for illness, seeing our racing heart as the first signs of a heart attack or our agitation as the start of a nervous breakdown, which increases our anxiety even further. In fact the signs of anxiety, though sometimes alarming, cannot harm us, but they can trap us into unhelpful and destructive patterns of thinking and behaving. ‘The signs of anxiety cannot harm us, but they can trap us into destructive thoughts and behaviour.’

Why some get it worse

Why are some of us prone to anxiety while others are more laid back? It’s usually down to a mix of personality, childhood experiences and what’s happening in our life. There’s some evidence that anxiety disorders run in families, so genes may be a factor. But feeling anxious can also be a learned response, a pattern we pick up early in life or that is triggered by a traumatic event in our past. Stressful circumstances, such as spiralling debt, relationship problems, dealing with separation, change and uncertainty, as well as being worrying in themselves, can make us more prone to anxious feelings. And anxiety can be triggered by lifestyle, such as a high-pressure job, overloading our bodies with caffeine or alcohol or not getting enough sleep. It can also be a side effect of medicines or recreational drugs.

What’s your type?

Anxiety comes in different forms, though the roots are the same. As many as 70% of people with an anxiety disorder have more than one type, because suffering from one makes us more prone to others. Anxiety problems can also make us more susceptible to other conditions such as depression. Check out the different types of anxiety below:

Types of anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety

You feel anxious most of the time without really knowing why. This can be tough because your feelings are not linked to a specific event, which means it’s hard to see an end to it. Phobia – you have an intense and persistent fear of something that poses no real danger. The most common phobias involve something specific, such as cats or heights. Most of us with specific phobias manage by avoiding situations that set them off. But if the fear gets very intense, or is triggered by something that’s hard to avoid, it becomes more of a problem. Less common, but often more disabling, are complex phobias like agoraphobia – fear of situations where there’s no escape, hiding place or easy access to help.

Another common complex phobia is social anxiety where you dread situations involving social interaction, such as social events or performing in front of others.

Panic attack 

A sudden surge of inexplicable anxiety and fear, which one in three of us will experience at some time in our lives. We all panic in certain situations, as anyone whose toddler has wandered off near a busy road knows, but in a panic attack the feelings often seem to come out of the blue or for no clear reason. Some people even experience them when they’re asleep. Panic attacks are about what’s happening inside us, a build up of anxious feeling, perhaps relating to stress, suppressed emotions or things that have happened to us in the past. 

Post traumatic stress

Intense fear and anxiety, often accompanied by flashbacks and nightmares following a traumatic event. Events we might find traumatic are any upsetting and overwhelming event that exceeds our ability to cope. These can range from terrifying and life threatening events, such a terrorist attack or a car crash, to distressing events that turn our world upside down, such as discovering our partner has left us for someone else or being sexually abused. Read more about trauma and post traumatic stress.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Your life is taken over by ritualistic tasks or compulsions, such as washing or checking, to seek relief from obsession-related anxiety. Common obsessions triggering this reaction may include fear of dirt and germs, or fear of acting out upsetting and irrational thoughts such harming people you love. Read more about how to manage OCD.

No quick fix

The biggest problem with anxiety is our response to it. It’s very tempting to avoid nerve-wracking situations because we think we can’t cope. We might call in sick, putting off that dreaded meeting with our boss, stay away from parties or avoid going out altogether because we find it too daunting. Or we might devise safety strategies, such as sticking close to friends at social events or leaving when it starts to feel too much. But these are short-term fixes that only feed our anxiety. We convince ourselves they are our only way of avoiding disaster, and this makes it even harder to face similar situations in the future – that vicious circle again.

How can we manage it?

So how do we escape the anxiety trap? The answer lies in:

    • Understanding our own anxiety patterns.
    • Learning to control the physical and emotional signs of anxiety.
    • Dealing with unhelpful thoughts and behaviour.
    • Facing our fears so we learn to manage them

Because all four parts of anxiety– physical, emotional, thinking and behaviour, work together – that vicious circle again – improving one area will help with the others too.

Read more

  • Overcoming Anxiety: a self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques by Helen Kennerley (Constable & Robinson)

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