How to identify, treat and live with an anxiety disorder

Everyone experiences anxiety – it’s a normal response to a stressful event. Anxious feelings may range from uneasiness and worry to severe panic. Experiencing mild anxiety can help people perform at their best, by giving them that little boost they may need. However, when anxiety presents as intense distress, lasts for long periods of time or interferes with daily living, it becomes problematic.

What does anxiety look like?

The physical symptoms of anxiety include: an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, dizziness, muscle tension, sweating, shaking, and butterflies in the stomach – extremely severe in a panic attack. Other common symptoms of anxiety include: confusion, trembling, faintness, difficulties breathing, nausea, agitation, irritability and avoidant behavior.

Types of anxiety

There are several different types of anxiety disorders, according to the DSM-5. These include generalised anxiety disorder, specific phobias, panic disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each type of anxiety has a unique set of symptoms, and each responds to different therapeutic treatments.

Treatment of anxiety

Psychological interventions – particularly exposure therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – are effective treatments for anxiety. Exposure therapy is focused on reducing fear and avoidant behaviours around stressful situations and stimuli, by gradually exposing the client to whatever may be triggering feelings of anxiety. Exposure therapy may be particularly beneficial for people experiencing social anxiety and phobias. CBT is composed of cognitive therapy (identifying and reframing distressing thoughts and feelings) and behavioural therapy (identifying maladaptive behaviours associated with anxiety and replacing those behaviours with healthier options). Other treatments used to treat anxiety include medication, exercise and, dietary changes.

Managing anxiety

The first step in managing anxiety is to identify the specific situations that trigger your anxiety. Keeping a diary of your symptoms and what’s happening when they occur, may be helpful in clarifying what your personal anxiety triggers are. It may also help to write down worrying thoughts as they occur – is there a pattern to the intensity or frequency of these thoughts over hours, days, weeks? Over time, your diary will be an invaluable guide to successfully navigating the cycle of anxiety, by identifying symptoms, stressful situations and thought patterns that exacerbate your anxiousness.

Once you’ve identified a situation that is causing you anxiety, problem-solving may be helpful. This involves creating a structured plan for managing a situation that includes:

  • Brainstorming ways to solve the problem and consider how likely it is that these ideas will help you overcome you problem;
  • Develop and carry out a plan for overcoming your problem, using your preferred solution from above;
  • If this still doesn’t solve the problem, try another of the solutions you came up with.

Some situations may not involve a problem that needs to be solved, but rather can be overcome by reducing your adrenalin response through specific breathing exercises. Your adrenalin response sometimes occurs due to an increase in your breathing, which is often compounded by an unpleasant feeling of lightheadedness.

Breathe in through your nose for three seconds, and then out through your nose for three seconds. Repeat this breathing exercise until your breathing normalises and you feel your symptoms subside.

Diet and exercise to reduce anxiety

The physical benefits of good nutrition and exercise are well established, but regular exercise and healthy eating are also vital for maintaining your mental fitness and health. Exercise in particular, has been shown to reduce stress and fatigue by increasing alertness and concentration. This is especially helpful for people with anxiety, as it’s usually stress and fatigue that cause or exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety.

Recent studies have found that exercise works quickly to elevate depressed mood, and also provides an outlet for stress; for some people, one vigorous exercise session can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety for hours afterwards.

Aim to exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes. The key to reducing your anxiety through exercise, though, is regularity. If you can’t manage regular 30-minute sessions, aim for shorter, more frequent sessions instead.

Eating well has also been shown to help combat the symptoms of anxiety.Though they may taste delicious, junk foods and beverages contain high levels of fats, sugar and salt, but very few of the vital vitamins and minerals you need to function correctly, placing undue stress on your body. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain a multitude of vitamins and minerals that your body – especially your brain – needs to function properly. Eating well, exercising, and being mindful of your personal stressors may all help combat the symptoms of anxiety.

People with anxiety need understanding and support, but it’s crucial that they also receive professional assistance. Counsellors and psychologists are trained to assess anxiety, and help clients better understand and manage anxiety by developing effective coping strategies and techniques. Therapeutic practitioners can also help clients to address other issues that may be associated with the anxiety, such as depression, stress or relationship conflict.

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