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What is anxiety, and how can you deal with it?

In this article, we provide you with all the information you need to be aware of anxiety, notice symptoms and find ways to improve your mental health.

Anxiety blog header

It’s been a difficult year for many of us, with many unforeseen circumstances we couldn’t have possibly imagined. There’s no surprise then, that our anxiety levels are at an all-time high, as discovered in a study by King’s College London. However, there’s a difference between feeling anxious and experiencing an anxiety disorder, and we’re here to clarify what it means to experience the latter. 

This article will explain to you what anxiety is, the main physical and mental symptoms, the different types of anxiety disorder, the main causes, and ways to cope with and treat anxiety. Whether you want to help someone close to you or improve your own mental health, we hope this article can provide some guidance.

What is anxiety?

You’ve probably heard about anxiety many times, but what does it actually mean to experience it? Anxiety is a common mental health problem that refers to being in a persistent state of worry or displaying excessive amounts of fear. Everyone worries about things now and again, but to suffer from anxiety means that worrying has a debilitating impact on your daily life.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the world, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggesting that 1 in 13 people globally suffer from an anxiety disorder. So if you’re dealing with one, know that you’re absolutely not alone. Anxiety is more prevalent in women and young people, which could be for a number of reasons. While women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety than men, 7.2% of 5-19-year-olds experience an anxiety condition.

To find out more about young people suffering from mental health conditions such as anxiety, you can try our online course Young People and Their Mental Health by the University of Groningen, where you’ll learn ways young people can help themselves or others. 

Symptoms of anxiety

Symptoms of anxiety will vary depending on the disorder, but most anxiety conditions will involve several or most of the symptoms detailed below. The following symptoms will be most accurate in depicting people suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Physical symptoms

  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Sweating or feeling hot
  • Increased heart rate
  • Panic attacks
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
  • Nausea or painful stomach
  • Aches and pains in your body
  • Feeling weak and tired
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in sex drive

Mental symptoms

  • Feeling nervous, irritable, or tense
  • Low mood and depression
  • Experiencing a sense of impending danger or fearing the worst
  • Constantly worrying about things 
  • Needing reassurance from other people 
  • Feeling like everyone is watching you
  • Derealisation: a form of disassociation where you feel like the world isn’t real or you’re not connected to it
  • Depersonalisation: a form of disassociation where you don’t feel connected to yourself, as if you’re watching yourself from an outside perspective

What are the main types of anxiety?

There are many different anxiety disorders, but we’re going to discuss four of the main types in this article. Other disorders related to anxiety that we won’t go into as much detail about include OCD, PTSD, separation anxiety and agoraphobia. For help and more information on these disorders, check out Mind, a UK mental health support charity.

Generalised anxiety disorder

This is the most common anxiety disorder, and GAD is often what people mean when they say they have anxiety. People with GAD feel anxious and worried most of the time, not necessarily as a result of being in a stressful situation. They often expect the worst-case scenario and find it hard to control these negative feelings.

This anxiety is enough to have a negative impact on their regular lives, as it causes uncontrollable worry that can make them unable to focus on what they’re meant to be doing. It can also cause problems with relationships, sleeping, eating and work. Worries do not usually relate to just one issue, but instead, relate to many aspects of a person’s life. 

Social anxiety

Social anxiety or social phobia is a disorder that causes an intense fear of being in social situations and performing in front of others. Even in normal situations that wouldn’t normally cause worry, someone with social anxiety might fear being laughed at, humiliated, attacked or judged by others. They might feel very uncomfortable being in large groups of people or being stuck with people they don’t know very well.

Some of the most common scenarios where social anxiety might strike include meeting new people, dating, public speaking, starting conversations and eating in front of people. Some of these things might sound nerve-racking, while some might not, but for someone with social anxiety, they can all feel traumatic.

Panic disorder

You’ve probably heard of panic attacks before, but you may not know that panic disorder is a mental health problem where you experience recurring and unexpected panic attacks. This can be extremely disruptive to everyday life, and each panic attack can be a really scary experience.

A panic attack often comes out of the blue and causes symptoms such as shaking, heart palpitations, hyperventilation and dizziness. Sufferers feel an immobilising fear wash over them, and sometimes worry that they’re going to pass out or die. To ease your worries, you cannot die of a panic attack. It’s just that a high level of anxiety can make you feel like you’re in danger.

Some signs you might have panic disorder include worrying for a long period of time after having a panic attack that it might happen again, worrying that a panic attack is actually a sign of a medical problem (such as heart disease), and avoiding certain behaviours or activities that might trigger a panic attack. 

Phobias

People might often make jokes about having a phobia of something, but phobias are actually a fairly common type of anxiety disorder that need to be taken seriously. When you have a phobia of something, you’re completely terrified of it and will irrationally exaggerate any danger in your mind. 

Some people don’t even need to be near the phobic stimulus, but just the thought or sight of it on a screen might cause an excessive amount of fear or even a panic attack. Often, people with phobias know their fears are irrational, but this doesn’t prevent the feelings of anxiety.

Some of the most common phobias include pteromerhanophobia, which is a fear of flying; claustrophobia, which is a fear of enclosed spaces; and entomophobia, a fear of insects.

What causes anxiety?

There’s not one obvious cause of anxiety. Rather, it is usually caused by a mixture of different things related to your personality, upbringing and life circumstances. Below, we go into more detail about the potential causes of anxiety disorders.

Genetics

Evidence has shown that if a close relative has an anxiety disorder, you’re more likely to suffer from one too. This fact could be the result of a mixture of nature and nurture, but there is some evidence that genetics might play a part. A 2015 study about twins found that having the RBFOX1 gene may increase the chances of someone developing GAD. A separate study from 2016 showed that the presence of specific genes could be linked to GAD, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

On the topic of biological causes of anxiety, our brain chemistry also plays a part, and is linked to our genetics. Many scientists believe that anxiety is partly caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and GABA. 

Reduced levels of serotonin have been linked to anxiety and depression, as this neurotransmitter heavily affects mood. Low amounts of dopamine can have a similar effect on anxiety, as dopamine influences the amount of energy a person has, though too much dopamine can also create feelings of paranoia. 

Norepinephrine imbalances can cause a problem because this chemical is released during the fight or flight response when the body responds to stress. Finally, Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) stops the brain from getting overstimulated and calms down the nervous system. Evidence from a 2003 study shows that low amounts of GABA can induce anxiety.

Childhood experiences and trauma

As with most mental health problems, negative childhood experiences or past trauma can cause anxiety disorders. In some instances, this might be a singular incident like the death of a loved one, an assault or witnessing something traumatic. Alternatively, anxiety can be caused by repeated negative experiences such as physical or emotional abuse or bullying.

Anxiety, in these instances, is often a result of your brain and body forming coping strategies to deal with traumatic events in the past. Especially when there has been a pattern of negative experiences, the brain can begin to anticipate something bad happening. This anticipation can result in persistent fear and anxiety.

It’s worth noting that you don’t need to have experienced something really bad in order to have anxiety. Many people with anxiety can’t trace it back to past events, so you shouldn’t feel like you’re exaggerating your feelings if you can’t either.

Current life situation

Anxiety can also be caused by the stresses of daily life. These factors may not appear to be stress-inducing, but can easily impact mental health. Things in your current life situation that can cause anxiety include money worries, relationship problems, work stress, caring for a loved one or being made redundant. 

Currently, a global pandemic is occurring, and the stress of COVID-19 has caused a massive increase in anxiety, particularly among young people. To help children and young people who are experiencing anxiety right now, check out our course on Anxiety in Children and Young People during COVID-19. Also, if you’re working from home and struggling to make it work, you can try our Work-Life Balance and the Impact of Remote Working course. 

Another common cause of mental health problems such as anxiety is physical illness or injury. The stress of dealing with a physical illness can really take its toll, especially when you consider the pain, financial toll and increased difficulty of doing everyday things. To find out more about the link between mental and physical illness, try our Integrating Care: Depression, Anxiety and Physical Illness course by King’s College London.

Drugs, alcohol & medication

Sometimes, anxiety can be triggered or caused by a certain drug or too much alcohol, and so there is sometimes a link between addiction or alcoholism and anxiety. Additionally, some medications for physical or mental diseases might have side effects including anxiety. Below we’ve listed some of these medications:

  • Medicine for Parkinson’s Disease
  • Medications With Caffeine
  • Corticosteroids
  • Seizure drugs
  • Thyroid Medicine
  • ADHD Drugs
  • Asthma Medication

How do I cope with anxiety?

Below we’ve listed some tactics you can use to help cope with symptoms of anxiety. These methods can’t replace professional help, but might offer a sense of calm to you when you need it:

  • Breathing and mindfulness exercises. There are plenty of techniques you can use to calm yourself down, and we have several mindfulness courses that will teach you some of the best methods. 
  • Distracting yourself with friends, family or hobbies. Sometimes we just need to be around people who love us or spend time on hobbies that distract us from feelings of negativity. 
  • Using self-care strategies. Some of our favourites include running a bath, lighting candles, listening to calming music and meditating.
  • Exercising. It may be the last thing on your mind, but exercising releases endorphins and reduces tension. Find out more about the healing benefits of exercise with Trinity College Dublin’s online Exercise Prescription course.
  • Writing in a diary. Writing has the power to let you release emotions, discuss worries, and check whether your fears are rational or not. Sometimes it can really help to get your thoughts down on paper.
  • Going to bed early. Sleep is a hugely important factor in maintaining mental health, and you can improve your own sleep on this Sleep Deprivation: Habits, Solutions and Strategies Teach-Out course by the University of Michigan.
  • Eating healthy, balanced meals. The food we eat can have a huge impact on our emotional wellbeing, as it is literally fuel for our bodies. Try a nutrition course to learn about how you can use food to improve your mental health.
  • Avoiding alcohol, drugs and caffeine. Each of these can have negative effects on your health and wellbeing, so it might be worth giving them up. Caffeine, in particular, may not seem bad, but it can make someone with anxiety feel very jittery.
  • Taking an online anxiety course. If you want to understand anxiety on a deeper level, we have some great anxiety courses for you to try, or even suggest to a friend or family member who has anxiety.

What are some anxiety treatment options?

There are several great treatment options for anxiety, and many people receive treatment for it every day. The same thing won’t work for everyone, and often, people need a mixture of different treatments to tackle the symptoms effectively. The main two types of anxiety treatment are therapy and medication, and we’ll go through your options below. Keep in mind, these examples are not exhaustive.

Therapy for anxiety

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is a type of talking therapy often used to treat depression and anxiety and is one of the most successful treatments. It aims to change your thoughts and behaviours by identifying and disrupting negative thinking patterns. To find out more about CBT used to treat anxiety, try our Understanding Anxiety, Depression and CBT course from the University of Reading.
  • Applied relaxation therapy. This is a good way to tackle the physical symptoms of anxiety and can be especially effective for panic disorder. It involves identifying potentially panic-inducing situations and learning to use muscle relaxation techniques to help the body calm down.

Medications for anxiety

First, it’s worth stating that medication doesn’t work for everyone, and can even make anxiety disorders worse in some instances. It should only be used if other methods are not working, and if the medication makes you feel worse, you should talk to your doctor and stop taking them. Keep in mind, only an experienced doctor or psychiatrist can say whether you should go on medication.

Below are some of the most popular anxiety medications:  

  • Benzodiazepines (tranquillisers). These are normally for short term use, and popular examples of benzodiazepines include Xanax and Valium. These drugs provide quick relief for panic attacks and anxiety but are very addictive. They help shut down the nervous system, which can alleviate anxiety, but they do tend to have some negative side effects. These can include feeling foggy and sleepy.
  • Antidepressants. Alternatively, antidepressants are normally suitable for long term use. The risk of dependency and abuse is lower than for taking benzodiazepines, but antidepressants are not a quick fix, as they can take six to eight weeks to kick in. They also have negative side-effects, which can be too debilitating for some people. Popular examples of antidepressants include Prozac and Paxil. 
  • Beta-blockers. Beta-blockers are mild tranquillisers that don’t kick in as quickly as benzodiazepines, and also don’t impair memory and coordination in the same way. They take about two weeks to start working and don’t have the same sedating effect as drugs like Xanax. The main example of a beta-blocker is the drug Buspirone, also known by the brand name BuSpar, which is fairly new and relieves anxiety by increasing serotonin and decreasing dopamine in the brain. 

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this article has helped you to understand anxiety disorders a little bit better, and we hope you feel more able to help yourself or someone else who may be having a hard time. Understanding your mental health is so important and a big part of being able to take care of yourself.

If you want to keep learning about anxiety and mental health, we have a great range of psychology and mental health courses you can take. If you’ve identified that you may suffer from an anxiety disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. Especially now, we need to prioritise our personal wellbeing.

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