Anxiety – don’t let it get you down
Are you anxious? Are you feeling worried about a problem at work or do you have butterflies in your stomach while waiting for the results of a medical test? Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. For most people, feelings of anxiety come and go, only lasting a short time. Some moments of anxiety are more brief than others, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
For some people, feelings of anxiety are more than just passing worries or the result of a stressful day at work. Persistent anxiety may not go away for weeks, months, or years. It can worsen over time, sometimes becoming so severe that it interferes with daily life. This is known as an anxiety disorder.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY?
Symptoms vary from person to person, but in general the body reacts in a very specific way to anxiety. When you feel anxious, your body goes on high alert, looking for possible danger and activating your fight or flight responses. As a result, common symptoms of anxiety include:
- nervousness, restlessness, or being tense
- feelings of danger, panic, or dread
- rapid heart rate
- rapid breathing, or hyperventilation
- increased or heavy sweating
- trembling or muscle twitching
- weakness and lethargy
- difficulty focusing or thinking clearly about anything other than the thing you’re worried about
- digestive or gastrointestinal problems, such as gas, constipation, or diarrhea
- a strong desire to avoid the things that trigger your anxiety
- obsessions about certain ideas, a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) performing certain behaviours repeatedly
- anxiety surrounding a particular life event or experience that has occurred in the past, especially indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
TYPES OF ANXIETY
There are several types of anxiety disorders, these include:
Agoraphobia: people who have agoraphobia have a fear of certain places or situations that make them feel trapped, powerless, or embarrassed. These feelings lead to panic attacks. People with agoraphobia may try to avoid these places and situations to prevent panic attacks.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): people with GAD experience constant anxiety and worry about activities or events, even those that are ordinary or routine. The worry is greater than it should be given the reality of the situation. The worry causes physical symptoms in the body, such as headaches, stomach upset, or trouble sleeping.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): this is the continual experience of unwanted or intrusive thoughts and worries that cause anxiety. A person may know these thoughts are trivial, but they will try to relieve their anxiety by performing certain rituals or behaviours. This may include hand washing, counting, or checking on things such as whether or not they’ve locked their house.
Panic attacks: A panic attack is a sudden onset of fear or distress that peaks in minutes and involves experiencing at least four of the following symptoms:
- shaking or trembling
- feeling shortness of breath or smothering
- sensation of choking
- chest pains or tightness
- nausea or gastrointestinal problems
- dizziness, light-headedness, or feeling faint
- feeling hot or cold
- numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesia)
- feeling detached from oneself or reality, known as de-personalization and de-realisation
- fear of “going crazy” or losing control
- fear of dying
- feelings of looming danger
- rapid or irregular heartbeat that feels like fluttering or pounding (palpitations)
Panic attacks may cause one to worry about them occurring again or try to avoid situations in which they’ve previously occurred. The symptoms of panic attacks are similar to those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses.
As a result, people with panic disorder may make frequent trips to emergency rooms or doctor’s offices. They may believe they are experiencing life-threatening health conditions other than anxiety.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD occurs after a person experiences a traumatic event such as:
- natural disaster
Symptoms include trouble relaxing, disturbing dreams, or flashbacks of the traumatic event or situation. People with PTSD may also avoid things related to the trauma.
Separation anxiety disorder
This is a childhood condition marked by anxiety when a child is separated from their parents or guardians. Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development. Most children outgrow it around 18 months. However, some children experience versions of this disorder that disrupt their daily activities.
This is a fear of a specific object, event, or situation that results in severe anxiety when you’re exposed to that thing. It’s accompanied by a powerful desire to avoid it. Phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), may cause you to experience panic attacks when exposed to the thing you fear.
WHAT CAUSES ANXIETY?
Doctors don’t completely understand what causes anxiety disorders. It’s currently believed certain traumatic experiences can trigger anxiety in people who are prone to it. Genetics may also play a role in anxiety. In some cases, anxiety may be caused by an underlying health issue and could be the first signs of a physical, rather than mental, illness.
A person may experience one or more anxiety disorder at the same time. It may also accompany other mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder. This is especially true of generalized anxiety disorder, which most commonly accompanies another anxiety or mental condition.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
It’s not always easy to tell when anxiety is a serious medical problem versus a bad day causing you to feel upset or worried. Without treatment, your anxiety may not go away and could worsen over time. Treating anxiety and other mental health conditions is easier early on rather than when symptoms worsen.
You should visit your doctor if:
- you feel as though you’re worrying so much that it’s interfering with your daily life (including hygiene, school or work, and your social life)
- your anxiety, fear, or worry is distressing to you and hard for you to control
- you feel depressed, are using alcohol or drugs to cope, or have other mental health concerns besides anxiety
- you have the feeling your anxiety is caused by an underlying mental health problem
- you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or are performing suicidal behaviours (if so, seek immediate medical assistance by calling 000)
If you’ve decided you need help with your anxiety, the first step is to see your doctor. They can determine if your anxiety is related to an underlying physical health condition. If they find an underlying condition, they can provide you with an appropriate treatment plan to help alleviate your anxiety.
Your doctor will refer you to a mental health specialist if they determine your anxiety is not the result of any underlying health condition. The mental health specialists you will be referred to include a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
A psychiatrist is a licensed doctor who is trained to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, and can prescribe medications, among other treatments. A psychologist is a mental health professional who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions through counselling only, not medication.
Ask your doctor for the names of several mental health providers covered by your private health insurance plan. It’s important to find a mental health provider you like and trust. It may take meeting with a few for you to find the provider that’s right for you.