Anxiety is a general feeling of unease, apprehension, nervousness or fear. Fear of facing something unfamiliar or unknown may be one cause of anxiety. Apprehension or nervousness may also result from the prospect of experiencing something unpleasant or upsetting. Sometimes, the source of a person’s anxiety is neither known nor recognised, adding to the distress he or she may feel.
Such feelings of anxiety are natural reactions to worrisome situations and often help us cope with stress or avoid danger. Up to a point, they help keep us motivated and sharply focused on the task at hand such as meeting a deadline, studying for an exam, preparing for a competition, or even performing delicate surgery. However, when the level of anxiety grows excessive, it often manifests itself in irrational behaviour or psychosomatic disorders that can interfere with our normal, everyday functions. Since each person is unique, individuals experience varying anxiety symptoms or combinations of symptoms, with differing levels of frequency and intensity.
Common anxiety symptoms occur in these basic areas:
- Body – e.g. insomnia, allergies, skin rashes, infections, muscle twitching, urinary problems, sexual dysfunction, migraine headache, neck and shoulder pain, blurred or distorted vision, ringing or rumbling sound in the ears, chest pain, heart palpitations, sugar cravings, nausea
- Mind – e.g. irrational fears or phobias, obsessions, disorientation, altered state of reality, memory loss or impairment
- Emotions – e.g. chronic anger and impatience, depression, detachment, unrelenting pressure, dramatic mood swings, panic attacks
When anxiety becomes disabling, it is a medical condition called an anxiety disorder. During a 12-month survey in 2007, 14% of Australians aged 16-85 were reported to be suffering from some form of anxiety disorder, affecting a slightly higher percentage of women than men. Anxiety disorder was found to be the most prevalent diagnosis among 43% of Australian women who had experienced mental health issues.
The National Institute of Mental Health has categorised anxiety disorders into 5 basic types:
1. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is diagnosed when an individual experiences an exaggerated level of anxiety over everyday matters for a period of 6 months or more. He/she typically goes through the day filled with constant worry and dread about daily concerns such as finances, health problems, and relationship or workplace issues. Ironically, a person with GAD realises that the anxiety he/she experiences is out of proportion to the actual or perceived problems but feels powerless to overcome them.
2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterised by recurrent yet unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviour (compulsions) such as hand-washing, counting, organising, or cleaning. Compulsions are rituals performed in an effort to ward off the obsessions, and omitting such actions increases anxiety levels. A person with OCD is often aware, though, that such rituals make no sense yet he/she has a compelling urge to do them because they somehow result in a temporary feeling of relief or reassurance.
3. Panic Disorder
An individual who experiences recurrent panic attacks – repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected feelings of terror accompanied by severe physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, chest pain, shortness of breath, and/or dizziness – is likely to be suffering from panic disorder. Panic attacks often produce a sense of impending doom or loss of control. However, not everyone who experiences a panic attack develops a panic disorder. The illness develops when such incidents occur with frequency, often restricting a person’s life to such an extent that he/she avoids ordinary activities like grocery shopping or driving since the onset of the next attack is unpredictable.
4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
This severe anxiety disorder can develop after exposure to a traumatic event either as a participant or a spectator. Traumatic events range from delivering a baby to being caught in the middle of a terrorist attack. Among the more common triggers are violent personal assaults, accidents, military combat, and natural or human-caused disasters. Such circumstances are usually experienced as life-threatening or extremely painful, either physically or psychologically, especially when something very precious such as a life (or lives) or sexual integrity is lost.
A person with PTSD often relives the trauma through persistent flashbacks or nightmares, usually has trouble sleeping, and is easily startled. He/she normally avoids situations that are likely to trigger such memories. When triggered, these memories result in feelings of extreme stress or anger that may make it hard to do daily tasks such as eating or concentrating.
5. Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder)
Social phobia may be the least understood anxiety disorder as it is often mistaken for ordinary shyness. Shy people still have the ability to participate in social situations, experiencing only a mild level of discomfort. Social phobia is shyness taken to an extreme level. People with social phobia or social anxiety disorder have an intense fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people for fear of being judged or evaluated negatively and harshly criticised by others. They find it extremely uncomfortable being the centre of attention. Such social interactions lead to deep feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and/or depression.
There are specific social phobias such as speaking in front of a group, performing before a panel of judges, or being introduced to strangers. There is also generalised social anxiety in which an individual feels nervous, uncomfortable, or fearful in a majority of social situations.
Anxiety disorders are treatable. It is vitally important to first gain awareness and understanding of the problem. Consulting a mental health professional is the most accurate means of pinpointing the problem and finding the right treatment or combination of treatments. Treatment should be customised to fit the specific psychological makeup of each individual.
Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated with the help of professional counsellors through cognitive behavioural therapy, stress management techniques, and, if necessary, medication. Some mental health professionals may include complementary anxiety disorder treatments such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation, dietary supplements, aromatherapy, music or art therapy, bio-field therapies, prayer, or pastoral counselling, . It is important to feel comfortable talking with the mental health counsellor you choose, and to sense that you feel understood by him or her.
The support of informed family members and friends greatly increases the effectiveness of professional therapy. Support groups among fellow sufferers are sometimes formed for their mutual benefit as well.
If you want help with dealing with anxiety, Australia Counselling links you with professional counsellors and psychologists in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and regional areas of Australia. Just visit our anxiety and/or panic attacks page to see counsellors and psychologists listed in your local area.