An introduction to anxiety
Anxiety is a feeling that many of us will have experienced. It comes as a result of stress and its symptoms are the body’s normal biological reaction to stress.
The word ‘anxiety’ is derived from Latin (anxietatem – to ‘vex’ or ‘trouble’) first seen around 500 years ago. However, it is only fairly recently that the word has been used in the context of health.
Some people might describe anxiety as a feeling of nervousness. It can affect us in different ways, depending on how we are feeling and what we are doing.
Feelings of anxiety can be temporary, short-lived and mild, with a clear identifiable cause. For instance, it is normal to feel anxious before an exam, and the worry that you might fail should spur you to prepare better. So, in some cases, anxiety and worry can be a good thing.
Some people, however, experience more anxiety than others. They worry more and seem to feel nervous or stressed more often, or even all the time. Feelings of anxiety can come about because the stresses around have increased or for various reasons, people may feel less able to cope with stress.
What causes anxiety?
When the body comes under stress, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. This normal reaction stems from our ‘caveman’ days. It makes our heart beat faster and our nerves become more alert, preparing our body to fight or flee from the danger facing us. This reaction is called the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Back then, dangers were man-eating animals. Today, we get stressed because of traffic jams, deadlines at work or money worries. Nevertheless, our body’s response to stress has remained the same. Our heart pounds away and we become jumpy because of the stress chemicals released into our body.
In general, there are two groups of factors (or causes) which work together to make us feel anxious. These are the external and internal factors. How you feel depends on an interplay between these. For more information go to our page on what causes anxiety.
Stress can be both positive and negative. An example of positive stress is wondering whether you have won anything in the weekly lottery draw. However, we don’t usually say we are anxious in these situations – we describe it as being excited. So, in a way, positive stress makes us excited, negative stress makes us anxious.
Anxiety can give rise to a wide range of symptoms. These can be grouped into physical and non-physical (or psychological) symptoms.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling our heart pounding or racing (palpitations)
- Feeling tense in our body and muscles (headaches, neck & shoulder pain)
- Increased rate of breathing (short and sharp breathing) or hyperventilation
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling nauseous, sick or faint
When stress becomes long-standing, physical symptoms of anxiety fade away or become less prominent. However, these are replaced by a variety of psychological symptoms of anxiety, including:
This is also known as stage fright and occurs when a person experiences extreme anxiety while performing in public, or even just at the thought of it. This often arises from a fear of being the centre of attention, and a fear of being judged or disliked.
Performance anxiety is not restricted to those who appear on a stage. It may affect teachers, those having to chair, lead or present at meetings and people needing to ‘perform’ well at a job interview. In a way, it is also related to the anxiety experienced in social situations when one wants to leave a good impression with people one has just met.
These are medical conditions which begin to interfere with daily life, mainly because the sufferer tries to avoid particular situations. Many types of anxiety disorders exist.
If interacting with other people causes anxiety, it can become a debilitating condition as this interferes with normal life. Anxiety disorders must be diagnosed by a doctor, who will also recommend a treatment plan, usually talking therapy or herbal remedies initially, and if these are unsuccessful, then conventional medicines might be used.
Examples of anxiety disorders include:
Often an external view of your symptoms gives you a more accurate picture of your problem than simply mulling them over in your mind. An anxiety test can be an effective means of having an objective look at the symptoms you are experiencing, to see if you need to be concerned, or need to visit your doctor.
If you suffer from anxiety, one of the first things you can do is to find ways to help yourself. No matter what sort of treatment you are using or thinking of using, how well you cope depends, ultimately, on your attitude, behaviour and habits.
There are a number of ways you can help yourself overcome anxiety:
- When under pressure, find ways to relieve stress quickly. Laughter, deep breathing and other techniques can help you relax even in the most stressful of situations
- Changes in your diet and lifestyle can help reduce anxiety. Reduce the amount of caffeine you consume. Use a coffee substitute or herbal teas.
- Take control of the situation by being more organised and assertive.
Treatments available for anxiety overlap considerably with those used to treat stress. The main forms of treatment include:
- Exercise – this is a self-help treatment. Exercising uses up any extra energy you have which you may automatically convert into worrying. It also releases endorphins which are renowned for lifting mood.
- Relaxation techniques – these include techniques such as yoga and meditation, or sessions involving massage or hypnotherapy. However, even simple breathing exercises , such as taking five minutes a day to close your eyes and breathe deeply may help relieve your symptoms
- Counselling / support groups – these involve discussing your problems with a medical professional, either in a group or a one-to-one basis. Discussing your problems will help you feel better, and your medical professional will also be able to guide your thought processes into a more positive pattern.
- Herbal remedies – Herbs such as Valerian, Avena sativa and Passiflora have a long-standing reputation for helping with the symptoms of anxiety
- Stress relieving medication from your doctor – if you are not finding any of the above treatments to be effective, then your doctor may recommend a conventional medicine such as anti-depressants or sedatives.
When to go to the doctor
Most people will be able to cope well with the stresses around them, managing anxiety using simple self-help techniques, herbal remedies and a good helping of common sense.
However, others may suffer severe and / or prolonged symptoms. You should see your doctor if you:
- Experience symptoms of anxiety most days and can’t remember the last time you were able to relax
- Have trouble sleeping, causing you to feel tired all the time
- Suffer from palpitations all through the day
- Experience severe panic or anxiety attacks
- Feel depressed or suicidal.