Anxiety is a natural response to danger, the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response, which is activated when you feel threatened, under pressure, or confronted with a difficult scenario, such as a job interview, exam, or first date. Anxiety isn’t always a terrible thing in moderation. It can help you stay aware and concentrated, motivate you to take action, and keep you attentive and focused. However, if your anxiety is frequent or excessive, and your worries and fears are interfering with your relationships and daily life, you’ve most definitely passed the line into anxiety disorder territory.
Anxiety has been linked to stress. As well as feelings of fear and worry, it often involves physical symptoms, such as muscle tension.
It is different from a panic attack, which is a symptom of panic disorder. Anxiety often relates to a specific event or situation, although this is not always the case.
A panic attack, meanwhile, can happen without any specifiable trigger, and the symptoms are far more severe than the symptoms of anxiety.
However, if levels of stress and anxiety continue for a long time, further problems may develop.
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling nervous, restless or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
Several types of anxiety disorders exist:
- Agoraphobia (ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uh) is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
- Anxiety disorder due to a medical condition includes symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are directly caused by a physical health problem.
- Generalised anxiety disorder includes persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events — even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically. It often occurs along with other anxiety disorders or depression.
- Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they’ve occurred.
- Selective mutism is a consistent failure of children to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when they can speak in other situations, such as at home with close family members. This can interfere with school, work and social functioning.
- Separation anxiety disorder is a childhood disorder characterised by anxiety that’s excessive for the child’s developmental level and related to separation from parents or others who have parental roles.
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) involves high levels of anxiety, fear and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
- Specific phobias are characterised by major anxiety when you’re exposed to a specific object or situation and a desire to avoid it. Phobias provoke panic attacks in some people.
- Substance-induced anxiety disorder is characterised by symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are a direct result of misusing drugs, taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance or withdrawal from drugs.
- Other specified anxiety disorder and unspecified anxiety disorder are terms for anxiety or phobias that don’t meet the exact criteria for any other anxiety disorders but are significant enough to be distressing and disruptive.
The differences between panic and anxiety are best described in terms of the intensity of the symptoms and the length of time the main symptoms occur. Panic attacks usually peak at around 10 minutes while anxiety can last for months.
- Lasts for minutes
- Shaking or trembling
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes
- Sense of detachment
- Gradually builds
- Can last for months
- Muscle tension
Tips for managing stress and anxiety include:
Know the signs: If you know when to recognize the signs that you are stressed or overly anxious, you may be able to take some action. Headaches, an inability to sleep, or overeating may all be signs that it is time to take a break or ask for help.
Know your triggers: If you can learn to recognize what makes you feel anxious, you may be able to take action. Perhaps you have taken on too many tasks? Can you ask someone to help? Does coffee or alcohol make it worse? Consider cutting down.
Diet: A busy lifestyle can result in too much fast food or too little exercise. Try to make time to sit down to a healthful meal, or take a home-made lunch with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to the office, instead of grabbing a burger.
Exercise: Sitting for long periods in front of a computer screen or while driving takes its toll. Try taking a 30-minute break and take a walk a day to boost your sense of wellbeing.
Learn some relaxation techniques: Yoga breathing, meditation, and other strategies can help reduce stress and anxiety. There is some evidence that the use of aromatherapy may help reduce stress, although further research is needed.
Try a new activity: Music, meditation, gardening, or joining a choir, yoga, pilates, or other groups can ease stress and take your mind off your worries for a while. You may meet people with similar concerns who you can share your feelings with.
Be social: Spend time with friends and family, or find a group where you can meet others, for example, by volunteering or joining a support group. You may find they can provide emotional and practical support, as well as taking your mind off the problem at hand.
Set goals: If you are feeling overwhelmed with financial or administrative problems, for example, sit down and make a plan. Set targets and priorities and check them off as you resolve them. A plan will also help you say “no” to additional requests from others that you do not have time for.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- You feel like you’re worrying too much and it’s interfering with your work, relationships or other parts of your life
- Your fear, worry or anxiety is upsetting to you and difficult to control
- You feel depressed, have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns along with anxiety
- You think your anxiety could be linked to a physical health problem
- You have suicidal thoughts or behaviors — if this is the case, seek emergency treatment immediately
Your worries may not go away on their own, and they may get worse over time if you don’t seek help. See your doctor or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It’s easier to treat if you get help early.
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