What is anxiety?
For many people, anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear or impending disaster. It reflects the thoughts and bodily reactions a person may have when they are presented with a situation or event that they cannot manage, handle or undertake successfully. When a person is experiencing anxiety, it is common for their thoughts to actively assess the situation, sometimes even automatically and outside of their conscious attention, and they develop predictions of how well they will cope based on previous experiences.
Having some anxiety is certainly a normal response to a stressful situation, but when the anxiety level is too high a person may not be able to come up with an adequate way of managing the stressful or threatening situation. A high level of anxiety may cause a person to “freeze”, avoid the situation altogether, or even cause fear that they may do something completely out of character.
Anxiety often causes people to experience responses such as:
- An intense physical response, such as a racing heartbeat, due to the arousal of the nervous system leading to physical symptoms.
- A cognitive response which causes thoughts about the situation and reduces the person’s ability to cope with it. A person experiencing high anxiety may interpret situations negatively and have unhelpful thoughts. Such thoughts could include the person thinking “This is really bad” or “I can’t cope with this”.
- A behavioural response that could make a person display avoidance or uncharacteristic behaviour such as restlessness, aggression or irrational behaviour (i.e. repeated checking).
- An emotional response that is reflective of the high level of distress the person is experiencing (i.e. crying)
What causes anxiety?
There is no one single cause of high anxiety. Usually there are a number of factors that may contribute to the development of a person’s anxious thoughts and behaviour. We have listed some causes of anxiety below.
Research has shown that people with a family history of anxiety are more likely to also experience anxiety.
Research has suggested that people who experience a high level of anxiety may be suffering from an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that often regulate feelings and physical reactions. Medication has been developed to help correct this imbalance and can provide relief to some symptoms of anxiety in most people.
People’s life experiences can make them susceptible to anxiety. Family break-up, abuse, ongoing bullying at school, and workplace conflict are all events that can be stress factors that impact on a person’s coping resources and leave them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety.
Some personality types are more susceptible to high anxiety than others. People who are shy, who have low self-esteem, and who have a poor capacity to cope are certainly more likely to experience high levels of anxiety.
Some thinking styles make certain people more susceptible to high anxiety than others. People who are perfectionistic or those who expect to be in constant control of their emotions are groups of people certainly more at risk of worrying and anxiety when they feel under stress.
Certain ways that people behave also place them at risk of creating high anxiety. People who tend to be avoidant are not likely to learn satisfactory ways of handling stressful situations, fears and high anxiety.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
The experience or level of anxiety usually vary from person to person. Common features of anxiety include constant worry or thoughts that are distressing which can interfere with a person’s daily living. In addition to worry or negative thinking, other symptoms of anxiety may be:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Avoidance behaviour
- Upset stomach or nausea
How is anxiety treated?
Anxiety can be treated by psychological treatment, particularly Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy. It has been found to be a very effective way of treating anxiety. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is made up of two distinct components.
The first component, cognitive therapy, is one of the most widely used and well supported treatments for anxiety. It is based on the thinking that a person’s thoughts in response to a situation or event cause the difficult feelings and behaviours they are experiencing. Often it is not an event that causes distress but the person’s own interpretation of that event. The aim of cognitive therapy is to help people to identify and overcome unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns, that are often automatic, irrational and negative, and help them replace those thoughts with more positive and helpful ways of thinking.
The second component of cognitive-behaviour therapy involves assisting a person to change their behaviours that are associated with anxiety, such as restlessness or avoidance. These behaviours may be changed by a person being taught and learning relaxation techniques and through changes in the way they manage certain situations.
Other treatments used to address anxiety include the use of medication and making simple lifestyle changes such as reducing caffeine, increasing exercise and changing their sleep hygiene.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Some people may feel such a high level of anxiety that it can become very severe and interfere with their functioning. It can make it difficult for them to cope with normal day-to-day demands. If this high level of anxiety persists over a long period of time, an Anxiety Disorder may be diagnosed by a psychologist or other health professional.
Almost 30 per cent of the Australian population will experience an Anxiety Disorder of some form at some point in their lives. People who are concerned about having an Anxiety Disorder should seek professional help to determine the best type of anxiety treatment to be used to manage their personal situation.
Below is a list of some of the most common Anxiety Disorders that can be treated by a psychologist.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
This involves persistent and excessive worry, often about day-to-day situations like family, work or health, with associated physical symptoms. This worry can be difficult to control, leading to common problems such as concentration difficulties, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.
People with a specific phobia commonly experience extreme anxiety and fear if exposed to a particular feared situation or object. Such phobias include a person having a fear of flying, insects and other animals, heights, confined or small spaces.
Panic Disorder occurs when a person has sudden surges or occurrences of overwhelming fear that come on without warning. These ‘panic attacks’ may only last a few minutes, but repeated episodes may continue to occur if the situations in which they occurred continue.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
A person with OCD has repeated, often upsetting thoughts called ‘obsessions’. An example is if they continually think that “there are germs everywhere”. To make these obsessive thoughts go away, a person may perform certain behaviours, called ‘compulsions’, over and over again (such as repeated hand washing). Often these compulsions can take over a person’s life. Although people with OCD usually know that their obsessions and compulsions are an over-reaction, they have trouble stopping them on their own.
Social Anxiety Disorder
A person with Social Anxiety Disorder has severe anxiety about being negatively evaluated or criticised by others. This often leads to people with social anxiety disorder avoiding social events because they are afraid of doing something that could lead to embarrassment or humiliation.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can occur after a person is exposed to a frightening and traumatic event. People with PTSD often re-experience the traumatic event through memories and/or dreams. They also tend to avoid people, places, or other things that remind them of the event. They are often extremely sensitive to normal life experiences that are associated with the event.
My Psychologist is happy to work with your general practitioner to provide you with the best possible treatment for anxiety that suits your individual circumstances. Speak to us today to start your journey to better health.
Information above sourced from the Australian Psychological Society