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What is Anxiety and how do we manage it?

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Everyone has anxiety from time to time. It can be before a big exam, or a driving test, or job interview and is usually characterised by feelings of worry, apprehension and acute stress. In these circumstances, anxiety is a normal and is an expected part of life. The feeling is temporary, and usually goes away once the source of anxiety does. Anxiety can even be motivating, people who feel anxious before an event may be more likely to plan ahead and prepare before important events (Craske Et al., 2011).

When is anxiety an Issue?

Anxiety can become a problem, however sometimes the anxiety doesn’t go away when the source of anxiety is gone. Sometimes people can even feel anxious without something to feel anxious about. Sometimes people start off with a small amount of anxiety, and over time these anxieties have built up and become more prevalent in their lives. This can get worse over time without the proper treatment, and can interfere with life in many ways, such as schoolwork, work and relationships with friends and family. There are many different types of anxiety disorders such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), specific phobic disorders such as Agoraphobia, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder (NIMH, 2022).

Recognising Anxiety

The first step to being able to tackle anxiety, is the ability to recognise the anxiety. There are several different signs that can help you to recognise when you might be starting to feel anxious. These can be physical, emotional, and behavioural.

Physical Signs

These are signs of anxiety that you can feel in your body. These signs are caused by the Central Nervous System preparing the body to react if needed. These may be things like:

· Feeling hot and/or sweaty

· Chest pain

· Racing or irregular heartbeat

· Feeling out of breath or “like not enough air is going in”

· Body aches, such as sore muscles or feeling sensitive to touch.

· Stomach problems such as aches, nausea, or even vomiting and diarrhoea

· Headaches

· Feeling dizzy and/or fainting

· Shaking/shivering

Some of these symptoms can mimic serious physical health conditions and can cause people’s anxiety to increase. Whilst this is not helpful, once you get used to recognising the physical signs of anxiety this effect lessens over time as you become more of an expert at it. (NHS, 2022).

Emotional Signs

These are signs of anxiety you feel inside your head. These can influence the physical symptoms of anxiety too (NIMH, 2022)!

· Excessive Worrying

· Apprehension

· Fear

· Panic

· Frustration

· Irritability

· Anger

· Stress

· Low self-esteem/self-efficacy (efficacy is your belief in your ability to do something)

Behavioural Signs

These are things you might do when you become anxious, or things you may do to try and lessen the anxiety (NIMH, 2022).

· Avoiding the thing that’s making you anxious

· Procrastinating (putting off) important tasks

· Ruminating. This is thinking a lot about something to the point it interferes with your normal day to day life

· Checking things repeatedly

· Reassurance/safety seeking

· Intrusive or unwanted thoughts that can often be distressing

· Difficulty concentrating

· Restlessness or an inability to sit still

· Difficulty sleeping

· Changes to eating habits such as eating too much or too little.

With all of these signs and symptoms, it’s easy to see how anxiety can have a significant impact on people and their day to day lives. So, what can we do to tackle anxiety?

Strategies and Recommendations

There are things we can do to lessen the effects of anxiety on our lives. Contacting your local care providers such as GPs and mental health providers can be helpful, however, there are things you can do yourself too. This can be alongside treatment from medical professionals, or something you try by yourself to help manage your symptoms.

· Keeping a diary where you note down your thoughts, feelings, and any physical symptoms you feel can help in recognising your own personal signs of anxiety, and help you take steps to tackle your anxiety before it becomes overwhelming (Watson Et al., 2023).

· Mindfulness based activities can be helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms. Being mindful just means being conscious and aware of what is happening in the present moment. Any activity can therefore be mindful. You can start being mindful when doing things you enjoy, taking in all the different sensory experiences like sight, sound and smells and taking time to notice them in the present moment. Taking time to be immersed in something enjoyable regularly can help with any negative thought patterns that may be underlying the anxiety (Vollestad Et al., 2011).

· Specific mindfulness activities such as controlled breathing exercises like ‘Paced Breathing’ can also help when anxiety causes physical symptoms. In ‘Paced Breathing’ you breathe in through your nose for 5 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for 7 seconds. The longer breaths kickstart something called your Parasympathetic Nervous System, which helps reduce the physical symptoms caused by your Central Nervous System (Russo Et al., 2017).

· Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another exercise aimed at helping calm the symptoms of anxiety. The idea is to focus on one muscle group at a time, tensing the muscle and then allowing the muscle to relax completely. You then move on to the next muscle group. For example, you could start with your shoulders/chest area, and then work your way down your body to your arms, stomach, legs and feet. (Stoppler, 2002).

· Breaking tasks down into small manageable chunks. This breaks the problem or task down into pieces that are easier to think about individually, instead of being overwhelmed by the overall task.

· Apply the 5-minute rule to tasks that are causing anxiety. All you do, is do the task for 5 minutes. You are not obligated to continue after 30 seconds, but often when we start a task we continue. It’s just starting that can sometimes be difficult (Keelan, 2022).

· Distraction. Sometimes there’s no need to keep thinking about something. Sometimes we do more harm to ourselves when we spend too much time going over something in our heads. Doing something you enjoy to distract yourself, and doing that thing mindfully, can break your mind away from the anxious thoughts, and help prevent you forming unhelpful and persistent thought patterns that reinforce your anxiety. Distraction isn’t the same as avoidance, distractions are only a temporary relief. Stepping away from the anxiety before returning to it with a clearer mindset (DeRose, 2020).

· Self-Care. Making sure your physical needs are seen to can be helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms. Hunger, tiredness and other forms of discomfort can make symptoms of anxiety worse or harder to manage in the moment. Self-care can also look like establishing appropriate boundaries with others and managing your expectations of yourself so you aren’t taking on more than you can handle (Halm, 2016).

References - Mindfulness shown to be effective in anxiety treatment.

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