Anxiety is a stressful and sometimes debilitating mental health condition, that will affect more than 2 million Australians in any given year. It can leave you feeling isolated, stressed and detached from your daily life.
It’s often associated with other mental health issues like depression, but for other people it may crop up when they are feeling otherwise mentally well, which can be disconcerting. However your anxiety manifests, it’s a very real condition that deserves attention – and that can be successfully treated.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an extreme or potentially irrational worry that interferes with your daily life. While for some people, that worry may be about a specific issue or concern, for others they may simply experience a general sense of worry or dread that they can’t explain, but can’t get rid of.
Mental health charity BeyondBlue characterises anxiety as worry or stress that either doesn’t go away after a reasonable amount of time, or that lingers with no identifiable cause. Worry is unfortunately a natural part of human life – but anxiety is what happens when that worry grows into something unmanageable or irrational.
What are the common signs of anxiety?
Anxiety can manifest in all sorts of complicated ways. There is no blueprint for what anxiety looks like. However, you may be suffering from anxiety if you exhibit some of the following signs or symptoms:
- Nervousness, restlessness or tension
- A sense of impending doom
- Trouble concentrating
- Insomnia or changes in sleep patterns
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing, sweating or shaking
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Appetite changes and nausea
- Anxiety and panic attacks
Triggers of anxiety
By definition, a ‘trigger’ in the context of mental health means an experience, sensation or situation that causes an emotional response, such as anxiety. Anxiety can be triggered by all sorts of events – and sometimes, there may be no obvious trigger or cause.
Triggers can include unpleasant experiences or uncomfortable contexts, like health issues, social situations, financial worries, relationship breakdowns, crowds, conflict and stress.
However, anxiety can also be triggered by less obvious physical culprits, like some prescription medications, caffeine, and diet. Your anxiety may also be triggered by things like loud noises, or certain smells.
Ultimately, your anxiety may not have an identifiable trigger, or the trigger may be something so innocuous that you don’t understand why it’s caused you anxiety in the first place.
For some people, dealing with anxiety triggers may mean confronting them head on, whereas for others that may make the anxiety worse. Everyone is different, so it’s important to work with your own abilities – that’s where therapy can be particularly helpful.
Common anxiety disorders
There are many different diagnosable anxiety disorders, though it’s important to note that getting a medical diagnosis isn’t the be-all and end-all. Definitions of different anxiety disorders help clinicians to understand and treat people’s mental health issues, but on the other hand they can risk over-pathologising people, making them feel like something is irretrievably wrong with them, when really most often anxiety is treatable and transient.
Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a conditions in which excessive worrying and other anxiety-associated physical symptoms become overwhelming and begin to take over everyday life. Typically, GAD is diagnosed if symptoms have been present for six months or more, and on more days than not. Nearly 3% of the Australian population is experiencing GAD in any given year – that’s three out of every hundred people you may know.
- Panic disorder is a condition in which a person experiences multiple, often unexpected panic attacks – i.e. a sudden period of intense fear that involves physical symptoms such as shaking, sweating, trembling, hyperventilating, chest pain, nausea or any number of other symptoms. Around 1-2% of the Australian population will experience panic disorder in any given year, and it’s twice as common among women than men.
- Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that makes a person afraid to leave familiar environments. In extreme case, some agoraphobics may not leave their homes for days, weeks or even months at a time. Symptoms include anxiety about being away from ‘safe’ environments, panic attacks, low self-esteem and depression. Agoraphobia often begins with a stressful event like a death, relationship ending, or the loss of a job that leads a person to isolate themselves, and then snowballs into a disorder over time.
You can find a more comprehensive list of various anxiety disorders here.
How long does anxiety last?
It’s the million-dollar question for people dealing with anxiety: when will this end?
Frustratingly, there’s no easy answer nor quick fix. For some people anxiety may be a phase that eventually resolves on its own, for others treatments like therapy or medication are more effective to alleviate the symptoms or in some cases resolve an anxiety disorder.
For some people, anxiety will be a problem that comes back throughout their lives – but that doesn’t mean it’s unliveable. Seeking appropriate mental health treatment can make anxiety easier to deal with, help you build resilience in the face of it, and equip you with the tools to still live a contented, happy life.
Another key issue is that people in the throes of anxiety often feel alienated and alone. It’s important to remember that there are quite literally millions of other people experiencing similar things to you, so while no one can fully understand your own inner world, there are people out there who can offer you comfort and support.
This may be family and friends, a therapist or it may even be strangers through an anxiety support group.
Can anxiety harm my health?
The short answer is: yes, long-term anxiety left unmanaged can have a deteriorating effect on your health. Often, the feelings of anxiety have psychosomatic effects (digestion issues, headaches, physical pains and complete fatigue are often expressions related to unmanaged anxiety).
Anxiety is essentially a fear response, though often the perception of what deserves fear is skewed in anxiety- something like going to a social outing can be misperceived to be as threatening and fear-provoking as a tiger running towards you. When this fear response is prolonged over a long time (the feeling of anxiety can be constant and exhausting), this fear response in our body can become damaging to our physical and mental health.
Certain stress and anxiety management techniques, including anxiety counselling, help to reduce the risk of developing many chronic illnesses related to long term stress responses from the body. These techniques help target the habitual, though unhelpful, thought patterns that fuel anxiety- and learning more helpful thought patterns to reroute from spirals of anxious thinking can have a real (positive!) effect on your bodily health.
Can people overcome anxiety?
People can and do move past anxiety all the time. There’s a strong evidence base to suggest that anxiety can be treatable with impressive results – for example, a 2020 review from the University of Toronto, Canada, reported that 72% of Canadians with a history of GAD had been free of the mental health condition for at least one year.
At the very least, even if your anxiety may not be banished forever, people can often learn techniques and tricks to help them manage it and regain control of their life.
There are a range of treatment options for anxiety, including psychological interventions and personal strategies, sometimes coupled with medical interventions.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) stresses that the first step in treating a patient with anxiety is ‘psychoeducation’. That essentially means that your GP’s first priority is to teach you about anxiety – what it is, how it presents and how common it is – so that you can begin to understand it.
Psychoeducation is important to alleviate the ‘worry about worry’ complex that a lot of individuals with anxiety develop. Essentially, people with anxiety become worried that the anxiety is dangerous to them, or perhaps that they are ‘losing it’ in some way. It can harm a person’s sense of reality, and make them feel that they can’t trust their own mind.
Any mental health practitioner will stress that this ‘worry about worry’ is an incredibly common feature of anxiety, and that it’s not true. You aren’t ‘losing it’, it’s not inherently dangerous, and you can still trust your mind.
Beyond psychoeducation, there are a number of treatment pathways medical practitioners will go down:
Psychological treatments for Anxiety
Psychological treatments will involve therapy with trained psychologists or counsellors. Common therapies include:
Cognitive behavioural therapy – CBT has the strongest evidence base in the treatment of anxiety. CBT aims to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety by identifying triggers and gradually reframing them to be less frightening, through physical relaxation techniques and developing new thought patterns.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing – EMDR is a therapy treatment originally developed to help people deal with traumatic memories, for example PTSD sufferers. While being asked to recall a trigger, you will be directed to a type of stimulating activity, like moving your eyes from side to side or tapping your hand.
Applied relaxation may be incorporated into a broader program of treatments like CBT, or may be used alone. It involves techniques to relax the muscles of the body, including repeated tensing and relaxation, as well as training the brain to associate the concept of relaxation – or even the word ‘relax’ – with a relaxed state. Ultimately, it can be deployed in moments of distress or anxiety to help alleviate symptoms.
Acceptance and commitment therapy – ACT is geared towards accepting what you can’t control, and committing to actions that will improve your quality of life. It teaches you psychological skills to deal with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and to clarify your values.
Pharmacological treatments for Anxiety
For some people, medications can help as an adjunct to therapy to alleviate or treat anxiety. Medications used include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), benzodiazepines and other antidepressants.
5 ways to cope with anxiety
There are lots of personal strategies you can adopt that will help you to manage the symptoms of anxiety or indeed keep it at bay. These may include mindfulness practices, exercise and other physical activities, diet and sleep patterns and support networks.
Mindfulness, in the context of mental health management, is a practice that cultivates an awareness of the present moment, of surroundings and sensations, without judgement. It has its roots in Buddhism and the idea of meditation, but has been divorced of its spiritual meaning in some settings and applied as a psychological technique.
Mindfulness app Headspace defines it as: “the idea of learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction of judgement.”
It may seem like a slippery concept, but there’s a strong scientific evidence base that mindfulness can help alleviate the symptoms of some mental health concerns – though it’s best when used in conjunction with other treatments, like therapy. You can learn mindfulness through online courses or apps, or you can attend mindfulness classes.
Mindfulness can also be cultivated through physical practices like yoga or tai-chi.
2. Breathing techniques
Breathing techniques can be a helpful way to soothe anxiety or induce calm. You can read about deep breathing here, but in summary, slow, deep breathing can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming your body down and bringing it to a resting state.
3. Physical activity
Exercise and physical activity are powerful ways to support your mental health. There’s strong evidence that physical exercise and activity reduce anxiety at a pathophysiological level. Physical exercise can also be distracting psychologically, allowing you to cultivate focus on a particular activity – in its own way a form of mindfulness.
4. Journaling or note-taking
It can be helpful to write down anxious thoughts, note the times of the day or week that they arise and what they’re linked to, and generally get to know your anxiety. When you understand anxiety better – what sparks it, when it’s strongest, and what helps to soothe it – you can regain a measure of control.
On the other hand, it’s important not to become obsessed with the idea of control. You won’t always be able to control your thoughts, and sometimes it’s not healthy to try. Dealing with anxiety is a balancing act of taking control and letting go in equal measure.
5. Learn from others
Given that anxiety is an incredibly common mental health issue, it’s likely there are people around you – probably in your immediate circle, even – who have lived with this before. Reach out to someone, and seek support from your community. There are also plenty of online forums – like this one through BeyondBlue – that can help you connect with other people dealing with anxiety.
Specialist Counselling for anxiety
Counselling is a proven way to help treat anxiety. Trained professionals can help you confront your anxiety and its potential sources, develop strategies to manage worries, and build a happier, healthier frame of mind.
Life Supports has many qualified counsellors and psychologists who specialise in anxiety issues and counselling. To speak with our intake team, you can call us on 1300 735 030 Monday to Friday 8am-8pm, or Saturday and Sunday 9am-5.30pm.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is enrolled in a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.