It’s safe to say that most of us have probably experienced anxiety before. Perhaps you’ve felt anxious before taking an exam or a driving test, or maybe you’ve been nervous before getting on a plane or attending a social event. While these levels of unease are perfectly normal and sometimes helpful, some people find their anxiety difficult to control, which can take a toll on their everyday life.
It's estimated that one in six adults experience symptoms of a common mental health problem, such as anxiety, in their lifetime1, with women almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety as men2.
But what actually is anxiety? And how can we cope with it?
What is anxiety?
Essentially, anxiety is an intense type of fear that is preoccupied with future-based worries or perceived threats. It wrongly activates your ‘fight or flight’ response when there is often no real threat present.
An anxiety sufferer will often ask themselves or others ‘what-if’ questions; e.g. ‘What if I faint at work?’ or ‘What if I get sick at the restaurant’. Although sometimes this type of thinking is useful, the ‘what-if’ thought cycle can become problematic when it turns into chronic worrying and interferes with your ability to function.
Anxiety can cause feelings of dread, loneliness, hopelessness and an impending sense of doom. However, anxiety isn’t just about scary or negative thoughts. It has the potential to affect not only our feelings, but also the way we behave. We can become withdrawn and irritable, with these behaviours then turning into actual physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach upset, which can manifest the problem further.
Although anxiety is very distressing and can be challenging to live with, there are steps you can take to help manage your anxiety.
The different types of anxiety
There are several types of anxiety and everyone will experience anxiety differently. Some people suffer from sudden panic attacks while others may have a fear of social events or have a constant, more general anxiety.
The main types of anxiety are:
This is the most common and broadest type of anxiety. It revolves around excessive, frequent worries about various different parts of everyday life. People with GAD feel anxious almost every day and rarely feel relaxed.
Social phobia is a fear of any type of social situation that involves interacting with others. This could be at a work event, birthday party, or any type of activity or situation that requires talking to someone else.
This is where the sufferer experiences frequent panic attacks without any obvious trigger and without warning. Panic attacks can be very frightening and feel like an intense rush of anxiety lasting anywhere between 5-20 minutes.
Phobias can be very wide-ranging, but are centred on a crippling fear of a place, object or situation. Someone with a phobia can feel particularly distressed even when there is no danger present. Sometimes even thinking about their phobia is enough to cause distress.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur as a result of witnessing a life-threatening event, such as war, terrorism or a natural disaster. It can cause recurring nightmares or flashbacks where the sufferer feels as though they are back in the actual event.
OCD is a disorder that revolves around obsessive, unwelcome thoughts and compulsive behaviours. Those with OCD will often try to combat their discomfort by performing repetitive activities to help reduce their anxiety. This can turn into a vicious cycle that becomes habitual and hard to break.
Common symptoms to look out for:
- A churning feeling in your stomach
- Muscle aches
- Rapid breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Pins and needles
- Trouble sleeping
- Grinding your teeth
- Upset stomach
- Panic and unease
- Dry mouth
Although anxiety is very distressing and can be challenging to live with, there are steps you can take to help manage your anxiety and improve your quality of life. Listed below are lifestyle changes and strategies you can adopt that will help to reduce your anxiety levels.
Whether it’s running, dancing or even walking, exercise can be key to when it comes to reducing anxiety. When you don’t exercise your anxiety levels can actually increase. Not only can regular exercise improve your physical health, but it releases happy endorphins that will help to boost your mood and promote positive mental wellbeing.
Although rigorous exercise is useful for managing anxiety, it’s also a good idea to take time to slow down too. Combining physical exercise with breathing techniques and meditation, yoga can have great effects on your mind and body. Practising yoga will not only allow you to relax, but it will also help you to become aware of your breathing and help to regulate it.
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding certain food that trigger anxiety can be highly beneficial. Foods such as fruit, vegetables, fish, chicken, turkey, meat, eggs, dairy, pulses and beans are all part of a healthy diet.
There are some foods you should avoid or reduce your intake of as they can increase anxiety symptoms:
- Caffeine. Tea and coffee are high in caffeine which can increase anxiety levels. Caffeine is a stimulant which can exaggerate your symptoms and make you feel more anxious.
- Sweets. Sugar is another stimulant that can make you feel jittery and nervous. It’s best to limit your intake of sugar by not overindulging in sweets or desserts.
- Alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and alters the levels of serotonin in the brain which can make your anxiety much worse.
- Fried foods. Processed or fried foods are not only unhealthy, but they are difficult for your body to process, even more so if you have anxiety.
Getting enough sleep is really important when it comes to managing anxiety. It’s recommended that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep a night3, but anxiety can interfere with sleep and sometimes you won’t get your 7-9 hours. On these days, make sure you top up your energy levels by drinking enough water and eating healthy food.
Meditation is a great coping technique as it helps to quiet an overactive mind by focusing your attention on your breathing and thoughts. Regular practice teaches you to adopt new ways of thinking, promotes calmness and reduces stress.
A thought diary can be useful as it encourages you to write down your thoughts. Not only is this a cathartic exercise, but it also creates a record of your worries and anxieties which can help to spot a pattern and track your symptoms.
Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
(CBT) or speaking to a psychologist can be highly effective in treating anxiety.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps you to retrain how you think about yourself, the world and other people, and change how what you do affects your thoughts and feelings. It can help you to make sense of overwhelming worries by breaking them down into smaller parts. For any worry or difficult situation, a string of thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and actions will all follow. CBT can alter how you think, react and deal with most situations and these changes can help you manage your anxiety.
Visiting a psychologist is another option. Your psychologist can provide support in understanding the causes of your anxiety, as well as assessing your symptoms and offer their professional opinion. You and your consultant psychologist can decide the appropriate path for you and develop a tailor-made treatment plan to help you achieve optimum results.
It’s important to remember that when it comes to anxiety there is no quick fix. You may have to manage your anxiety throughout your life; however with the right lifestyle changes, consistent coping strategies and appropriate treatment, it can be managed.
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