Anxiety is a normal response when faced with unexpected danger or stress. At times, it can be a helpful response in preparing the body for action, and can improve performance in a variety of situations. However, anxiety can become a problem when it interferes with your everyday experiences and prevents you from leading a normal life.
Anxiety can persist whether or not the cause is clear to the sufferer. Anxiety can make a person imagine that things in their life are worse than they really are. They can become obsessed with “what if’s”, and fears for the future can make them think they’re going mad. Often, they experience an anxious physiological response that far exceeds the “danger” in the current situation.
It’s important to recognise that anxiety is normal and has existed from our caveman days. Back then, we were equipped with an internal alarm system designed to protect us from the dangers surrounding us in the wild. This system would make us hyper-alert by giving us a boost of adrenaline to increase the heart rate and stimulate the amount of oxygen going to our limbs so we were better able to deal with danger. This is known as the “fight or flight” response. The “butterflies in the stomach” feeling that many associate with anxiety is this mechanism kicking in, but instead of being used to avoid immediate danger, it is often wrongly and inappropriately activated in a person during normal, everyday situations when stress has built up.
Counselling and psychotherapy can be instrumental in tackling the root cause of anxiety and working on ways of managing it.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) feel in a constant state of high anxiety – also known as “chronic worrying”. They often describe themselves as having “free floating anxiety”, and can feel similar to the “Whack the Crocodile” game at an arcade: as soon as they resolve one issue, another worry pops up.
We all worry from time to time, but what makes GAD different from “normal” worry is that the worry is prolonged (often for more than six months), and the level of worry is out of proportion to the risk. For example, if a partner is an hour late home from work (without calling) a GAD sufferer may think “they must have had an accident” – rather than any other likely scenario, like they’ve been delayed in traffic or they’ve popped to the pub with a colleague.
GAD is a particularly difficult disorder to live with as it’s constantly on the sufferer’s mind. There is no respite, as the anxiety is not tied to a specific situation or event. It can cause problems with sleep, work and close relationships.
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Panic attacks can start for many reasons. Stress, overworking, bereavement, an accident, childbirth, the aftermath of surgery: these may cause panic attacks to strike for the first time, seemingly for no apparent reason at all. They can come on suddenly and last for between five and 20 minutes, making you feel nauseous, choked, and as though your heart is skipping its beats. If you have subsequent panic attacks, they too may seem unpredictable and random.
Living with a panic disorder can be frightening, disabling and frustrating. As panic can strike very quickly, and often the trigger is not apparent, there is usually little warning that it’s about to happen. It’s not surprising that many sufferers avoid situations they believe might cause a panic attack. This leads to fears of situations or places that last caused anxiety, and the sufferer may avoid them at all costs.
This fear can, in time, develop into agoraphobia. Seeking appropriate therapeutic support is important before anxiety or panic develop into agoraphobia. A therapist specialising in anxiety can help you with breathing techniques to help you cope when a panic attack happens, as well as identifying triggers and underlying issues that may be prompting the panic attacks.
A phobia is more than a simple fear. It develops when a person begins to organise their life around avoiding the thing they are afraid of, whether it’s an animal, object, place or situation. A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. If you have a phobia, you will have an overwhelming need to avoid all contact with the source of your anxiety.
Coming into contact with the cause of your phobia, or even the thought of this, can make you anxious and may cause you to panic. If the cause of your phobia is an object or animal that you do not come into contact with regularly, such as a snake, it is unlikely to affect your day-to-day life. However, if you have a more complex phobia, such as agoraphobia (fear of open and public places), you may find it difficult to lead a normal life.
Therapy for phobias may involve gradual exposure to the cause of your phobia, and helping you to manage your anxiety around it.