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The sky is falling

It’s quite normal to feel anxious from time to time, in fact if you didn’t feel a little flutter of nervousness or fear in nerve-wracking situations, it would be strange. But what about when you feel consistently anxious, even when there’s no imminent threat or reason? Usually, anxiety goes away when the situation causing it ends, but when your anxiety is tied up in nebulous threats like the diminishing ozone layer, the world economy or local crime, the situation doesn’t end and you’re stuck with an overriding sense of unease. There are degrees of anxiety – from a mild feeling of uneasiness to extreme panic.

FROM HERE TO THERE

There are a number of factors that can influence whether or not you experience levels of anxiety that negatively affect your life. If you have a family history of anxiety, you could be more susceptible; a chemical imbalance in your brain could be a cause; some life experiences (such as abuse, bullying, work stress or conflict) can trigger anxiety-riddled thought patterns; people who are shy or have low self-esteem are more susceptible to anxiety; perfectionists are also at more risk; and people who have an avoidant personality are less likely to learn coping mechanisms for stressful situations.

Anxious thoughts can lead to generalised anxiety disorder; a specific phobia (such as fear of spiders, or flying); panic disorder; obsessive compulsive disorder; and social anxiety disorder. Post-traumatic stress is also included in the anxiety disorder mix, but is triggered by a traumatic event only.

PERSISTENT

The Canadian Anxiety Centre says there are over 100 possible symptoms that you can experience – it’s down to your individual peculiarities, personality and circumstance. Many of the symptoms could be linked to other conditions; for example, muscle soreness and weakness coupled with fatigue could be construed as the onset of a bout of flu.

Possible signs of anxiety include such variety of symptoms, from back pain, stiffness, spasms, tension or pressure, exhaustion, dizziness and trembling or heart palpitations, to fear of losing your mind, nightmares or feeling under pressure constantly. The myriad symptoms and almost endless permutations make for difficult diagnoses; however, if you’re unsure what’s making you feel queasy and uneasy, seek professional help and take steps to ease the anxiety.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

Although medication is sometimes a necessary evil, it’s best to attempt more natural and sustainable approaches before reaching for a packet of pills. Cognitive behaviour therapy is preferable to taking medication such as anti-anxiety pills (which can lead to dependence or addiction) or antidepressants, which come with their own set of undesirable side effects. This type of therapy centres on your thought patterns – identifying and understanding what triggers a spiral of negative thought that may lead to anxiety. Once thought patterns are identified, then the therapy moves toward finding ways to change your anxiety-related behaviour (such as avoidance or restlessness).

You can also make lifestyle changes, such as the usual healthy admonitions of eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, as well as cutting down on caffeine and alcohol intake. Additionally, learn how to manage your time effectively and remember to include downtime in your daily schedule. Certain supplements or natural anti-anxiety medications can assist in managing your spiral into over-anxiety.

REAL OR PERCEIVED

There’s a difference between fear and anxiety. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary defines fear as: the bad feeling that you have when you are in danger; and anxiety as: the state of feeling nervous or worried that something is going to happen.

PANIC ATTACK

Generalised anxiety disorder can lead to panic disorder – that’s when your anxiety completely overwhelms you and you’re attacked by an incredible fear where you have difficulty breathing. Your body reacts to extreme stress by producing adrenaline, which kicks off the flight or fight response (giving you a boost of energy to either stand your ground or run away). The adrenaline boost is fantastic if you are in a situation that requires flight or fight, but if you experience this rush when you’re about to get up in front of your peers to say a speech, well, it could turn you into a wreck.

NO AGE LIMIT

According to Dr Joel Sherrill, it’s not uncommon for children to experience anxiety. There are three types of anxiety that occur in childhood: social anxiety, which manifests as an intense fear that they’re being watched or judged and they might do something embarrassing; generalised anxiety, where children simply can’t get rid of their anxious thought patterns even if they realise their fear is out of proportion with reality; and separation anxiety, where a child is petrified of being separated from their parents or loved ones and often has exaggerated worries that something bad will happen to these people or themselves. Dr Sherrill recommends the same type of treatment as for adults – cognitive behavioural therapy, medication or a combination of the two.

Obviously, due to the addictive nature of anti-anxiety medication, it’s preferable to try natural and therapeutic measures before you seek respite in medication.

Take anxiety seriously and make the lifestyle and behavioural changes necessary to ensure you can live a life free of overwhelming fear and debilitating angst.

MINDFULNESS

In terms of anxiety, mindfulness is based on the fact that while most people understand their anxious thoughts to be irrational, self-talk simply doesn’t have an effect. This is because of what’s known as “emotional feeling energy” – which gives the anxious thoughts power and meaning. Mindfulness enables you to release the power placed on these thoughts. There are easy exercises (meditation-like) that can be done so you are able to practise mindfulness by yourself – although beginning the process with a professional will be more beneficial initially.

References include

1 Australian Psychological Society. Understanding and Managing Anxiety. http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/anxiety/ Sept 2012
2 Anxietycentre.com. Anxiety Symptoms, anxiety Attack Symptoms. http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-symptoms.shtml Sept 2012
3 Turnbull J (editor). Oxford Advanced Learning Dictionary. International Student’s Edition. Oxford University Press, UK. 2010
4 Hjemdahl P, Esler M. Cardiovascular and Autonomic Responses to Stress. Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. 2012;Part 1:31-53
5 Encyclopaedia of Mental Disorders. Anti-anxiety drugs and abuse. http://www.minddisorders.com/A-Br/Anti-anxiety-drugs-and-abuse.html#b Sep 2012
6 Strong P. The Mindfulness Approach. Therapeutic Techniques that Work. Overcoming Anxiety with Mindfulness Therapy. Jul 2010 http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindfulness-approach/201007/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness-therapy
7 Joel Sherrill on Anxiety Disorders in Children. Audio transcript. The National Institute of Mental Health.
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/media/audio/joel-sherill-on-anxiety-disorders-in-children.shtml Sept 2012

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