Anxiety is a normal emotion that helps protect humans from danger. When you sense you are in danger, your body releases of large amounts of the hormone adrenaline to make you more alert, increases your heart rate to help you move blood to the large muscles of your body, and increases your breathing rate to help you take in more oxygen.
The purpose of these changes is to prepare you to fight or to run away from threats – it is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. A number of symptoms can occur as a result. These include sweating, trembling or shaking, nausea, racing heart, cold hands and feet, dizziness, and pins and needles.
In our modern world, there aren’t so many predators chasing us or immediate threats to our physical safety. But anxiety remains part of our instincts and responses, even when the danger we might be experiencing is not the same as it was in prehistoric times.
Everyone experiences anxiety at times, but some people experience levels of anxiety that are out of proportion to the threat present, or experience anxiety when there is no real threat.
This can be extremely distressing and can disrupt a person’s day-to-day life as well as their ability to work, study, and socialise. When this happens, it is known as an anxiety disorder.
An anxiety disorder is a medical condition where a person experiences persistent and excessive worry. It is one of the most common forms of mental illness. People with anxiety may also experience more than one anxiety disorder.
As well as anxiety, some people may also have depression, or have problems with alcohol or drug abuse. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, research suggests that you may run a higher risk of experiencing physical health problems too.
Anxiety disorders are thought to come from a combination of genetic, biological and socio-environmental factors. These can include family history, environmental factors, personality traits, and biological factors. What makes you anxious might be different from what makes someone else anxious.
Women are more likely to develop anxiety as a result of caring for or supporting others, relationship breakdown, violence or abuse, discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity, infertility and perinatal loss, pregnancy, having a baby and becoming a mother and menopause. Unfortunately, only about 18% of affected women seek help.
If anxiety is affecting your life and stopping you from enjoying the things you used to, your first point of contact should be your doctor. They can establish that there is no underlying physical cause for your symptoms. If they suspect you have an anxiety disorder, they will discuss coping strategies and treatment options with you.
They may also refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor. A combination of therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and relaxation, are the recommended approaches for anxiety, and should be trialled before medication.
Medication generally only assists in the short term for symptom management. Other helpful ways to reduce your stress include exercising, good nutrition, adequate sleep, reduced caffeine intake, and social and emotional support from friends and family.
Anxiety disorders are very real and, fortunately, also treatable. If you love someone with an anxiety disorder, here is a list of things you can do to help:
Further information can be obtained via www.beyondblue.org.au. If you or anyone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.