We’ve all felt anxious from time to time. But there’s a difference between normal, everyday anxiety you experience for a reason, and an anxiety disorder, which can take over your life.
Anxiety’s a natural response to a situation that seems to carry a threat of harm, whether that’s physical, like being in a car accident, or social, such as falling out with good friends or breaking up with a partner. Anxiety is supposed to prompt you to make yourself safe. But when you have a disorder, the threat either becomes inflated or you see one that isn’t there at all, and anxiety becomes unhelpful and disruptive.
Many of us experience problematic anxiety at some point, and it’s more common in women – there may be a hormonal influence, as some find anxiety worsens at perimenopause. Experts believe there’s a genetic element – some of us are naturally more prone to anxiety and may struggle with it on and off throughout our lives, without help – but it’s probably also connected to early life. If your parents were very anxious, or you had a traumatic early experience, such as bereavement or bullying, you’re more likely to be affected.
What types of anxiety disorder are there?
Anxiety disorders can come in many forms. And they can overlap, too – so you may have symptoms of more than one. Some common anxiety disorders include:
- generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). You feel anxious most of the time about a range of issues. The whole world can seem threatening.
- health anxiety. You worry obsessively about your wellbeing, often fixating on a particular, devastating disease. You may have no symptoms, or only minor ones, and you might seek repeated tests and reassurance from doctors.
- body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Like health anxiety, this is an anxiety disorder focused on the body. You become distressed by a perceived flaw in your appearance. The distress is often focused on facial features or the skin, or, in men, the hairline and muscles. The perceived flaw is usually unnoticeable or non-existent as far as others are concerned.
- Social anxiety. You have an overwhelming fear of social situations and may arrange your life to avoid them. This doesn’t necessarily mean you stay in all the time – many with social anxiety are able to go to certain places, or with certain people. It’s also common to drink alcohol to excess to help you cope with social situations.
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is closely linked to anxiety disorders and is marked by troublesome recurring thoughts, resulting in compulsive behaviours in an attempt to make yourself feel safer. A well-known example is compulsive hand-washing to deal with fear of germs but OCD can play out in many different ways.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Emotionally, you feel tense and fearful all or much of the time. You may sometimes find it difficult to concentrate on work, and to engage fully in family life, hobbies and socialising, because thoughts of threat are constantly running through your mind. You may also have physical symptoms, including a racing heart, muscle tension and digestive problems, and it’s also common to have difficulty sleeping and lose your appetite.
How anxiety can affect your life
Behavioural symptoms are also key in anxiety. Avoidance is one of the major components - you stay away from situations that trigger your fear. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle, because when you avoid something, you don’t give yourself the chance to overcome the fear, and the fear gets bigger. So-called safety behaviours are another key part of an anxiety disorder. These can include constant reassurance-seeking – for example, having medical tests in health anxiety or constantly checking things in OCD – and carrying out compulsive behaviours that help you feel safer, such as wearing makeup to camouflage perceived defects if you have BDD. These behaviours can temporarily make you feel better but don’t help in the long run as, again, you’re not addressing the root cause. Overdoing alcohol is another common sign of anxiety.
How can you help yourself when feeling anxious?
- See your doctor. They can refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the gold standard treatment for anxiety. It teaches you strategies to challenge unhelpful thoughts by looking at the evidence for them. In some cases, you may gradually expose yourself to situations that make you anxious. Traditional counselling – where you talk about your problems and look into the root of them – isn’t necessarily helpful for anxiety as it can allow you to dwell on your fears, rather than change your thinking around them. Your doctor may also prescribe medication, if appropriate. You should always see your doctor if anxiety’s having a significant impact on your life or has been going on for a long time.
- Practise mindfulness - it helps you focus on the here and now rather than fears of the future.
- Get active. Exercise is a must for anxiety as it helps reduce levels of stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol. You don’t have to choose ‘calming’ exercise such as yoga – for some, more vigorous activities such as spinning and running may be more helpful. Ultimately, it’s important to do it regularly, so choose what you’ll stick at.
- Prioritise sleep. It can be elusive when you’re anxious but missing out on sleep is likely to make you feel jittery and overwhelmed, so try to get enough. Speak to your doctor if sleep’s a problem.
- Look after your diet. A healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and veg, whole grains and beneficial fats, is vital for good mental health.
- Enjoy yourself. Spending time with friends and doing things you enjoy are important for raising your mood and gaining perspective. Try to push yourself to do pleasurable things, if you can – it really will help.
- Avoid alcohol. It’s common for people with anxiety disorders to self-medicate with alcohol because in the short term, it can feel soothing, and can help you forget about the source of your anxiety – so if you’re doing this, know you’re not alone and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. In the longer term, though, alcohol is likely to make your anxiety far worse. Try to cut down or avoid it completely.
- Try natural help. Certain herbs have been used traditionally to help with anxiety, such as chamomile and valerian. And some research has shown lavender oil, taken orally, can make a significant difference to anxiety.