Understanding Anxiety, Panic & Depression: Part 1 – Anxiety

Definition:

  • A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
  • A nervous disorder marked by excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behaviour or panic attacks.

Anxiety is a natural feeling, that everyone has, especially when faced with challenging situations, such as taking an exam, going for a job interview or meeting people you do not know.

Just thinking about these situations can make you feel scared or frightened, and dealing with them can be a major ordeal.

When we become anxious, we become aware of a number of emotional and physical symptoms, including:

  • Feeling nervous, anxious or frightened
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling sick
  • ‘Butterflies’ in your stomach
  • Dry mouth

It is really important to remember that feeling a certain level of anxiety is normal, even if it does not make you feel great.  Anxiety can be something positive because it can make you more aware in a dangerous situation.

If you went to the edge of a cliff and looked over, you would immediately take a step back; this is your body telling you to be careful; what you choose to do after this is up to you, but your mind and body will be telling you that there is potential for danger, and generally make you move away.

Physically:

The main physical effect of anxiety on the body is called ‘Fight or Flight’.  This is where in alarming or dangerous situations your body decides whether you should run or fight, it is a safety mechanism that has evolved over millions of years, and allows us to react to a situation quickly.

If our ancestors had not had this fight or flight response they would not have survived very long.

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Thoughts:

In the past there were more physical dangers to contend with, so the ‘fight or flight’ response was really useful; nowadays however, most of the stressful situations we face require us to think about a practical solution, so a physical reaction is not very helpful and can actually make you feel worse (when in this situation, remember that the physical response is normal). 

Problems occur when we start to think too much about non stressful or dangerous situations, and we start to worry, perceiving dangers that are not there, or over estimating the level of the danger; eg: you may worry about the alarm clock not going off.

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This worry and over thinking makes us anxious, and sends our body into fight or flight mode, all over something that is actually quite safe.  When this happens for prolonged periods of time it can have major affects on our health.

Behaviour:

Many people suffering with anxiety will go out of their way to avoid situations that cause their anxiety levels to rise, which can have a huge impact on their life.

I really struggled to be around people, even those that I knew well, and even communicating by telephone or e-mail was something I struggled to do.

Changes in behaviour can be quite hard for others to understand, especially when a very simple task is involved; on one occasion I had to leave a shop because I was having a panic attack over choosing a birthday card…. other people in the shop probably thought I was a bit weird, and I haven’t actually been in that shop since.

The Vicious Circle of Anxiety:

This is caused by the different aspects (emotional, physical, thoughts and behaviour) working together, and the anxiety builds the more times you go round the circle.

Anxious Vicious Circle

To give an example, when I thought about leaving my flat, just the initial thought would make me start to feel nervous; I then started to worry about what would happen when I left the flat, would I see someone I knew?  Would I have a panic attack?  Every question triggered a negative thought which in turn caused a physical reaction.

When you go around the circle too many times, this is when you start to panic, which we will come on to later.

So that’s the very basics of anxiety.

Remember; it is normal to have a certain level of anxiety and the way your body responds is normal.  The trick is to make sure that you try and control what you worry about starting with the simple things; you can also ask yourself if you’re worrying about something that is out of your control anyway?

My advice is that if you are anxious about a certain situation, don’t be afraid to tell someone, and don’t look at it as a sign of weakness.  If others are aware then they can help by making some adjustments to accommodate you, or it may be that their understanding how you are feeling is enough to reassure you.

If you are feeling that your worry and anxiety is a bit out of control then go and speak to your doctor immediately.

The information above, came from a brilliant booklet an NHS therapist gave me; ‘An Introduction to Coping with Anxiety’ by Brenda Hogan and Lee Brosan; it really helped me to understand what I was going through.

Thank you, Thank you Thank you.

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