What is Anxiety?

Feeling anxiety is normal. It’s an emotion like any other. Even though feeling anxious is unpleasant, there are benefits from experiencing anxiety. For example, anxiety can be protective. If you do something that involves danger, you’re likely to experience anxiety.

Anxiety is one of the emotions that stops us doing activities that put us in danger. It is also the emotion that moves us into taking action when we find ourselves in a dangerous situation. This is through a fight or flight response.

We may also ‘freeze’ because of anxiety. There are occasions when ‘freezing’ is a very appropriate response to a threat. For example, if a burglar breaks into your house and you hide under the bed. It would be appropriate to freeze so that you don’t make a noise.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety is a natural response we have evolved and works well as our alarm system. That is until it doesn’t. When this alarm system becomes too sensitive, it indicates a threat is present when there is none. This is when an anxiety disorder has developed.

When an anxiety disorder develops, anxiety occurs with safe everyday activities. Excessive anxiety can make many things in life appear worse than they actually are. Anxiety sufferers may also spend much time worrying about the future.

How can a Clinical Psychologist Help with Anxiety Disorders?

A Clinical Psychologist will help you:

  • Understand what an anxiety disorder is

  • Understand how the anxiety disorder affects you and those around you

  • Identify the triggers of anxiety

  • Help you manage your triggers productively

  • Help you learn ways to reduce your overall levels of anxiety

  • Help you set up a realistic plan to avoid a relapse

  • Help you manage any low mood and depression

Living with anxiety

Anxiety is the inbuilt alarm system that protects us from surrounding dangers. This alarm system gives our body a boost of adrenaline, which in turn prepares our body for survival. The heart rate goes up, and we start breathing faster to flood the body with oxygen in preparation for fight or flight.

In short doses, stress from anxiety does not cause any harm. However, feeling anxious for prolonged periods can have harmful effects by causing:

  • high blood pressure

  • disturbed memory

  • poor sleep

  • low mood

  • loneliness

  • isolation

  • avoiding activities

Living with an anxiety disorder can be debilitating. Most people learn to avoid situations that make them feel anxious. In the short term, this reduces anxiety. However, people learn fast to rely on avoidance as a way of coping.

As a result, in time, their ability to tolerate anxiety reduces further. In the long-term, avoidance often stops people from doing a lot of the activities they used to do, and they enjoy. Loneliness, isolation and low mood are common effects of an untreated anxiety disorder.

Types of Anxiety Disorder

There are many types of anxiety. Someone can suffer from more than one of them:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD causes uncontrollable worries, stress and concerns about many everyday situations and experiences. Once a situation that causes anxiety is resolved, people with GAD tend to start feeling anxious about another situation. GAD can be very different from one person to another.

Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety causes a heightened level of anxiety in social situations such as supermarkets, parties, workplaces, public transport, etc. People with Social Anxiety may feel overly worried about what other people may think of them.

Many people with Social Anxiety cope by avoiding all the above situations. However, this can become debilitating when social life, food shopping, meeting friends, leaving the house and so forth all stop.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder causes regular and frequent panic attacks. Panic Attacks can occur without a clear trigger or reason. Overwhelming fear, worry, feeling scared, or out of control can consume a person with a panic disorder. People with a panic disorder tend to develop a fear of having a panic attack or another medical condition. This only exacerbates their anxiety and can act as a trigger for future panic attacks.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is when a person suffers from severe anxiety following a traumatic event or experience. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • nightmares

  • flashbacks

  • re-living the experience or trauma

  • dissociation

  • irritability

  • panic

  • depression

  • hypervigilance

Similar to anxiety disorders, PTSD can be debilitating, and without treatment, the symptoms can take a very long time to resolve.

Health Anxiety

People who suffer from health anxiety have obsessions with their health. They worry that they have a condition that could be serious or lead to death. Common fears include having cancer or a brain tumour.

People with Health Anxiety tend to spend hours ‘googling’ signs and symptoms they have. They inevitably self-diagnose the condition they fear, usually ignoring the reassurance of medical professionals. The constant pre-occupation with a possible only exacerbates their feelings of anxiety long-term.

What is the treatment for Anxiety Disorders?

The longer you live with an anxiety disorder, the more entrenched the symptoms become. Consequently, a longer period of psychological therapy is usually necessary for recovery.

A Clinical Psychologist is an expert in human behaviour and mental health disorders. Treatment begins with a comprehensive assessment. The first step of therapy usually is to learn more about the condition.

Everyone experiences anxiety in a different way. Understanding your own triggers, and how anxiety manifests in you will be the key to finding a resolution. Using this information, your Clinical Psychologist will work out with you an individualised care plan that involves strategies to bring the anxiety under control.

If anxiety is severe, a Clinical Psychologist will work with your GP or a Psychiatrist to explore the benefits of a short-term course of anxiety medication alongside psychological therapy.

What are some self-help strategies to reduce stress and Anxiety?

Besides professional support, there are strategies one can implement to reduce the amount of stress one experiences. Stress management can help to manage mild symptoms of anxiety.

There are some simple strategies that may help reduce stress and anxiety, such as:

  • Making lists

  • Improving the quality of your sleep

  • Breaking down daunting tasks into manageable ones

  • Discussing concerns with friends, families, teachers and employers

  • Using productivity methodologies like the Getting Things Done by David Allen and Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle.

Physical activity and exercise are a crucial aspect of our lives but it’s usually the first thing we give away when life becomes too much. Even so, there are benefits of exercise in reducing stress and symptoms of anxiety.

Activity creates feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. Exercise also develops self-confidence allows you to meet up with others improving your social contact.

What is the best psychotherapy for Anxiety Disorders?

Psychological therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders. There are a number of effective psychological treatments that reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Some examples include:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

  • Systemic Psychotherapy

  • Compassion-Focused Therapy

 CBT is usually the first treatment to be offered. It involves talking about the thoughts, behaviours and feelings that occur with anxiety. CBT teaches new strategies to take control of anxious thoughts and reduce feelings of anxiety. Once you are feeling more confident in managing feelings of anxiety, CBT encourages ‘exposure’ therapy. Exposure therapy is doing activities or going to places which are normally avoided because of anxiety. This way, you gradually start reclaiming your life. Psychological therapy for anxiety is usually one to one, but can also be in a group.

What medication is there for Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety medication can be effective. It is commonly only be prescribed short-term because of its side effects. There are different types of anti-anxiety medication, each with various side-effects. Side-effects tend to include drowsiness, fatigue, low blood pressure and memory problems. Some anxiety medications can be addictive and are best avoided for people who tend to develop addictions.

Anti-depressants are preferred to treating anxiety for long-term periods. They can take 4 to 6 weeks to start showing benefits. The two commonly used antidepressants for treating anxiety disorders are:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

Summary

Everyone experiences an Anxiety Disorder differently, but there are many effective treatments available. It is important to be assessed and treated by a professional who can create an individualised treatment plan that includes the various elements of therapy that will benefit you.

As part of your assessment, a Clinical Psychologist will discuss any anxiolytic medication you may be on and will liaise with your prescriber if required.

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