Anxiety is a normal, human experience.
We all experience it from time to time. It’s a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear. It might be brought on by something like an impending job interview or an exam, an argument with a loved one, or worries about your finances. This is perfectly natural and is part of our body’s built-in fight-or-flight response.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Anxiety has both physical and psychological symptoms (Source: Anxiety UK).
- Increased heart rate
- Increased muscle tension
- “Jelly legs”
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Hyperventilation (over breathing)
- Difficulty in breathing
- Wanting to use the toilet more often
- Feeling sick
- Tight band across the chest area
- Tension headaches
- Hot flushes
- Increased perspiration
- Dry mouth
- Choking sensations
- Thinking that you may lose control and/or go “mad”
- Thinking that you might die
- Thinking that you may have a heart attack/be sick/faint/have a brain tumour
- Feeling that people are looking at you and observing your anxiety
- Feeling as though things are speeding up/slowing down
- Feeling detached from your environment and the people in it
- Feeling like wanting to run away/escape from the situation
- Feeling on edge and alert to everything around you
What is fight-or-flight?
The fight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response) is an “internal alarm system”. This alarm system goes off in response to a stressful or scary situation, and our body gives us a boost of adrenaline to increase our heart rate, hence increasing the amount of oxygen going around our bodies. This makes us better able to either “fight” the danger or run (fly) away from it. Thinking back to early times, this would have been useful in terms of being stalked by a large animal. The human would need an extra boost in oxygen to prepare themselves to either fight the animal or run from it. This internal alarm system has remained in our bodies until today, even though we don’t usually have this sort of problem anymore!
Why do we still have it?
The fight-or-flight response is still important because it helps to keep us safe. When our heart rate is increased, we get more oxygen, and our bodies are better primed to react and make decisions.
If it’s so useful, why is anxiety a problem?
For some people, feelings of anxiety are persistent and severe and can start to affect their ability to go about their daily lives, and can cause great distress. If this is the case, you may have an anxiety disorder.
What are the different types of anxiety disorders?
There are many, many types of anxiety disorders. For more information on the different types, click here.
According to Anxiety UK (a leading UK charity), the most common behavioural symptom of anxiety is avoidance (the flight response). We tend to try to avoid situations that cause us anxiety, as this can provide immediate relief, however, this is only a short-term solution, and doesn’t deal with the actual issue. For example, if you are feeling anxious about your debt and a letter (which you suspect is a bill) comes through the door, it may be tempting to ignore the letter and throw it away. This may provide temporary relief from anxiety, but it doesn’t deal with the cause of the problem. Also, by avoiding the situation, we might miss out on something good! What if the letter included a cheque for some money you didn’t realise you were owed? But even if not, the debt is still there, and it will keep causing anxiety until it is dealt with. Furthermore, avoidance may lead to significant difficulties in your life, for example, it may get to the point where you no longer leave the house or cannot keep your job.
The bucket analogy
When I was in therapy, we were taught about the bucket analogy. Basically, consider your life as a bucket, and all the responsibilities and stresses in your life are the water. Over time, the bucket will fill and fill, until it overflows. What we need to do is create holes in the bucket to let some water flow out. The “holes” are things that help us to manage our anxiety, such as listening to relaxing music, spending time with loved ones, taking part in our hobbies, and so on.
What can I do if I’m struggling with anxiety?
Make an appointment to see your GP. If you are struggling with persistent anxiety, it may be that you need some medication or therapy. Your GP can also provide you with some advice on how to cope with the symptoms of anxiety.
You can also do some research for yourself, by checking out the following websites:
A final note
People with anxiety disorders cannot “just calm down” or “just stop worrying”. They need specific help and support from professionals and those around them to help them manage their anxiety.
What has been your experience with anxiety? Have you ever sought help? Let me know in the comments.