When Anxiety Becomes a Mental Illness
Anxiety. Those who experience it to the extent I do will have cringed just reading the word. It is the devil, it is like the darkest storm that overtakes you, sucking you in and spitting you out, just to reappear and do it all again. But anxiety is actually a healthy part of being human. So what goes wrong? When is anxiety an issue? I often get frustrated when I explain to people I suffer from anxiety and they reply “oh me too I was anxious before my job interview the other day”. Well I have been anxious just looking out the window seeing there was a world outside and couldn’t step foot on the sidewalk.
What is anxiety?
Basically anxiety is a the extreme feeling of nervousness and worry, that ‘gut feeling’ of uneasiness like something is not right. It is actually a natural part of being human and helps us reach our optimal level of performance. It ties in with the ‘fight or flight’ response which is a basic instinct from our hunting days.
There are many symptoms of an anxiety disorder and they include physical symptoms such as hot flushes, trembling, hyperventilation, clammy hands, excessive sweating,rapid heart beat, stomach upsets and numbness in hands and feet. There are also psychological symptoms like constant worrying thoughts, making a bigger deal out of situation in your mind, constantly focusing on a particular thought or pervasive thoughts. Behaviourally, the physical and psychological symptoms may cause avoidance of particular situations, escaping form situations or comfort behaviours like always carrying a water bottle or food.
When does anxiety become a disorder?
Apart from showing the above mentioned symptoms, anxiety becomes a disorder when it negatively affects your life, when it interferes with your daily living and causes distress for a at least six months (yes we need to suffer for six months). The reason for this is that life events such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or break down of a relationship can cause us to feel such emotions and feelings but wouldn’t be classified as a disorder.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders;
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which is excessive worry that may relate to a particular situation or event.
- Panic Disorder which is characterised by having panic attacks
- Social Phobia where anxiety is present in social situations like large crowds or social events like meetings or parties.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where a person experiences anxiety in relation to certain routines they must follow, such as always washing ahnds or checking all the doors are locked before leaving the house three times.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which follows a traumatic event
What does it feel like having an anxiety disorder?
Having a diagnosed anxiety disorder is extremely difficult, stressful, overwhelming, challenging and upsetting. To get to the point of diagnosis, a person would likely have gotten to a place where they are struggling to live life normally. It can make every aspect of life difficult – from going to work, seeing friends, going to school or any public place and even simple tasks like showering, cooking and cleaning. The extreme fear that a person feels is hard to imagine unless you have experienced it. Think of this – what do you absolutely fear most? Is it snakes or spiders, is it losing someone you love? Now close your eyes and imagine what it is you fear and the sensations that take over your body and the thoughts that pop up in your head. Multiply this by a thousand and you can probably feel a little bit of what it is like to have anxiety. Imagine you felt like this every minute of the day, you can’t escape it when you sleep, you wake up feeling like this, you are so fearful to do every day activities. It’s exhausting right?!
Having an anxiety disorder affects every aspect of a person’s life. Physically your body feels drained and tired all the time, but because of the anxiety it is hard to rest and let your body restore itself. It’s hard to concentrate because you are always thinking of the threat of a catastrophic event that is apparently around the corner. It’s upsetting and distressing because you feel like you can’t escape it, you can’t be ‘normal’ and hang out with friends or go on a holiday. No matter what you do it is consuming, there isn’t a time when it isn’t there, lingering, waiting to pounce.
What do I do if this is me?
There are a number of different options to overcome and manage anxiety disorders. Each person will respond differently and it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ treatment. Options include:
- Visit you GP or psychiatrist: They will be able to make sure there are no other physical conditions at play (such as a thyroid disorder) that could be contributing to your anxiety. They can also make referrals to other specialists and to a psychologist and discuss whether medication may be an option.
- See a psychologists: Psychologists are trained to assist people suffering form mental health conditions. They can employ a range of strategies and therapies to suit you personally. Things they can do with you include discussing your feelings and talking about your past and what may have contributed to your situation, therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which help manage and improve anxiety. They can teach you coping mechanisms through mindfulness and other techniques.
- Day programs and online treatment programs: There are a number of days programs available that teach you skills to manage anxiety and also act as a support group.There are also online programs which encompass Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Your GP, psychiatrist or psychologist will be able to provide you with more information.
- Set yourself up with an exercise program: Exercise has a huge impact on our brain and general wellbeing. This can be daunting if you are suffering from anxiety or haven’t really exercised in the past so start small like going for a short walk or downloading an exercise app which will walk you through a workout you can do in your living room. As you build up, you will be able to do more exercise and can start to integrate back into a gym or take up another hobby.
- Eat well: What you eat can have an affect on anxiety. Be sure to eat healthy foods and steer clear of fast foods. Also avoid stimulants as they can exacerbate the feelings of anxiety, such as caffeine, sugar and energy drinks.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness and mediation are great tools to help manage anxiety and the science is proving this. Yoga is also great for people suffering from anxiety.
- Mos importantly, be kind to yourself. This isn’t something that will be fixed overnight. It takes time and hard work. Be patient with yourself and you will most definitely get there.
What do I do if someone I know is experiencing an anxiety disorder?
- Listen! Sometimes just venting and having a big word vomit can ease the anxiety. Knowing you have a person there to trust and who will try to understand is really important. Don’t be judgemental and don’t assume you know what the person is going through. Never think the person is being over dramatic because you can’t fathom the way they are thinking or acting, because anxiety isn’t rational. This can be difficult at times but if you simply listen and stay calm, it can make the world of difference.
- Never tell a person with an anxiety disorder to “just get over it” or “just think positive thoughts”. If it was that simple don’t you think the person wouldn’t have a problem?! It’s a complex and pervasive disorder and simply being positive isn’t going to change the physiological reaction that takes place in the person’s body. Healing takes time and there will be ups and downs so you will also need to be patient.
- If the person tells you they don’t feel up to doing something today, don’t take it personally. Don’t get angry with them. Some days are harder than others, and some days just need to be spent resting and recuperating.
- Stick by them. An anxiety disorder doesn’t define a person, it isn’t their personality. It is just that, a disorder, just like if a person had a physical condition like asthma or cancer. Don’t treat them any differently you would if they had any other disorder.
The most important thing to remember is that you can overcome this. It isn’t you. It is something that you will get through, will make you stronger and wiser. Don’t be ashamed if you feel this way. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be patient with yourself and you will overcome this. You got this!
Links for further information and support
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