Anxiety: what is it and when does it become a problem?

What is anxiety?

Your body’s natural response to danger or threat is to ensure our survival. When a car drives towards us there is no time to think and ponder the situation, your body will be flooded with stress hormones  – cortisol and adrenaline – to give you the energy to move quickly out of danger. This is the fight or flight reaction and it often occurs before rational thought can think your way out of the situation. This is an extremely useful mechanism to keep us safe. 

However, this system can over-react to what it perceives as a threat (think about phobias where there is an extreme reaction to seemingly harmless objects and situations). If your feelings of anxiety are extreme, last longer than six months and are interfering with your quality of life, you may have an anxiety disorder. This means that this flight-fight reaction is being triggered a significant amount of the time. 

We all experience anxiety occasionally. We might have a presentation at work that worries us or an exam coming up. It is normal to experience this and it doesn’t cause long-lasting distress. In fact, some anxiety can actually improve our performance in these situations. 

Common symptoms of anxiety

The most common symptoms of anxiety are rapid heart and breathing rates, a feeling of restlessness as well as difficulty concentrated and disturbed sleep. Because your body is gearing up to escape or fight, the blood flow concentrates around your major muscles (arms and legs) to prepare you. This can cause the ‘butterfly’ feeling in your stomach due to reduced blood flow, as well as tingly sensations in other areas like arms and legs where the blood flow is temporarily increased. It is more difficult to concentrate because the blood flow in the brain is more concentrated in areas related to threat than higher level thinking. 

So you can see that, although anxiety disorders are thought of as purely mental health issues, they can have a significant effect on your body too. 

What helps to reduce anxiety

Counselling and medication are known to help people with anxiety disorders. A doctor can prescribe anti-anxiety medication which can help to reduce the symptoms but doesn’t necessarily change the underlying issues that are causing the anxiety in the first place. It is important to look at what is triggering your flight-fight responses if you want anxiety to reduce long-term. A good counsellor will work with you to understand why your body and mind is responding 

There are also some things you can do alone that can reduce your reactiveness and give you a little more control. For example, anxiety is rooted in the future – worrying about what happens next. This is why being in the present moment with mindfulness can alleviate your symptoms and give your mind a break. Take a look here for some mindfulness suggestions. 

STOPP technique

In addition to the above suggestions, there is a CBT technique that research has shown works well to reduce anxiety over time. STOPP is an acronym which stands for:

Stop 

Take a breath – breathing out for longer than breathing in gives your brain a signal there is no danger

Observe – observe what you are thinking, what you are feeling in your body.

Perspective – look at your thoughts – are they rational worries or catastrophic thinking? What is more likely to happen? Will this be important in six months? A year? What advice would you give a friend in this situation?

Proceed – decide what is the most appropriate and effective way to act next. Where should you focus your attention. What is the most helpful thing for you to do next?

This works by calming your physical reaction to anxiety (slowing your heart and breathing rate) and pulling in your logical front brain to counter-act the anxious thoughts with rational ones. Like working out a muscle this is something that can feel difficult to start with but gets easier over time. You may not see the results straight away but if you persevere you should experience the benefits of your efforts with more control over your anxiety. 

There is a great video explaining this technique in more detail here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NHZkQ57wzE

Know you are not alone

Feeling anxious all the time can be very isolating. However, its estimated that almost 20% of adults experience an anxiety disorder and this number is increasing. The ONS stated that the number of people experiencing high levels of anxiety increased to 39% during the coronavirus lockdown. So if you have or suspect you have an anxiety disorder, you are far from alone and there is plenty of help out there. Seeking the help of talking therapy can be a good first step – just make sure the counsellor or psychotherapist is trained and a member of a professional body like the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or NCS (National Counselling Society). 

More information 

getselfhelp.co.uk is a great source of tools and techniques that can help with anxiety

Anxiety UK (https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk) have information on this mental health condition as well as support groups and treatment

Mind (mind.org.uk) have great information on mental health conditions including anxiety

“Living with anxiety is like being followed by a voice. It knows all your insecurities and uses them against you. It gets to the point when it is the loudest voice in the room. The only one you can hear”

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