Everyone experiences some form of anxiety from time-to-time, as part of the body’s normal response to a stressful event – speaking in public, for instance, or if you’re facing financial difficulty. In these instances, mild anxiety can help people to perform at their best. For some people, though, anxiety can become so frequent and intense that it begins to take over their lives.
Anxiety can come in many forms, ranging from panic attacks to phobias to social anxiety, and sometimes the official distinction between ‘normal anxiety’ and an official diagnosis isn’t always clear. However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor.
You worry excessively: One hallmark of generalised anxiety disorder, which is the broadest and most common form of anxiety, is worrying about everyday things, large and small. If you have persistent anxious thoughts most days of the week, for more than six months, and the anxiety has become so bad that it interferes with daily life, it may be that you have generalised anxiety.
You have trouble sleeping: It’s not uncommon to toss and turn and have difficulties falling asleep during periods of stress or anticipation – the night before a job interview, for example. But if you chronically find yourself lying awake at night, worrying about specific problems (money issues, say) or even nothing in particular, this could be a sign that you have an anxiety disorder.
You have irrational fears: Unlike generalised anxiety, some anxiety is attached to certain situations or things, like a fear of crowds, flying, or particular animals. When the fear becomes disruptive and way out of proportion with the risk involved, it’s a telltale sign of a phobia. Phobias can be crippling, though they’re not always obvious. A person who’s afraid of snakes can go years without it being a problem until they go camping with their kids, and then it suddenly triggers their anxiety.
You suffer from panic attacks: Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them repeatedly may be diagnosed by a panic disorder, a form of anxiety. People with a panic disorder live in fear about where, when and why their next panic attack may happen, and they tend to avoid places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.
You have recurring flashbacks: Reliving a disturbing or traumatic event – a violent encounter, the sudden death of a loved one – is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which shares some features with anxiety disorders (and until recent was seen as a type of anxiety rather than a condition of its own). But some flashbacks may occur with other types of anxiety, as well. Some people with social anxiety, for instance, may experience PTSD-like flashbacks of being publicly ridiculed, and may even avoid reminders of the experience.
You’re a perfectionist: The fussy, obsessive mindset of ‘perfectionism’ goes hand-in-hand with an anxiety disorder. If you are constantly judging yourself or have a lot of anticipatory anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your standards, you may have an anxiety disorder. Perfectionism is especially common in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which can happen subtly, such as frequent cleaning, but it can also be crippling – violent intrusive thoughts of causing harm to loved ones. To be diagnosed with OCD, a person’s obsessive behaviours must be accompanied by the unrelenting urge to complete the behaviours, because not doing so would result in crippling panic attacks. Thus, the obsessive behaviours have now become compulsive.
How is anxiety treated?
Psychological treatment, particularly cognitive-behavior therapy, has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety. Cognitive behavior therapy is made up of two parts:
- Cognitive therapy, which focuses on a person’s thoughts in response to a situation that causes personal distress; and
- Behaviour therapy, which aims to change the behaviours associated with anxiety.
The first step in managing anxiety is to identify the specific situations that cause it and then, instead of avoiding the situation, approach it with the intent to solve the problem through structured problem solving.
Learning a breathing technique to slow down breathing is often effective in relieving symptoms of lightheadedness and feelings of being unable to breathe, which often occur during periods of anxiousness.
Thought management exercises are also useful to manage recurring distressing thoughts. Mindfulness is a thought management technique used to redirect attention away from negative thinking. A psychologist can help you decide on thought management strategies that are likely to be most helpful.
Understanding and support is crucial
It is also important that they get professional help. A psychologist is trained to assess anxiety, and to help a person with anxiety to understand and manage their condition, by developing effective coping strategies and techniques. A psychologist can also help a person to manage other problems that may be associated with the anxiety, such as depression, stress or personal relationships.