Anxiety is the natural, if uncomfortable feeling, of being worried, nervous or scared when we face a situation that we cannot control.
When facing a stressful situation such as an exam at school, an important meeting, or a first date, we can become anxious. Our bodies can operate at a different speed – our heart beats faster and our minds race, thinking of 1,000 things at once.
Anxiety affects our body in lots of ways, especially when we are in a situation that we perceive as a “threat” and we need to make decisions fast. One could ask “what is so threatening about a first date?” This is supposed to be a nice situation, but if we go to the core of it, we will find a first date could feel like an evaluation… what if I don’t pass?
These “stressful” situations can last for a while and so will our anxiety: we won’t sleep well that week, we may lose our appetite or tend to eat more than usual. Once that situation is over, our anxiety should disappear.
When we feel anxious, often the core question is 'what if?' We imagine all sorts of negative responses. 'what if I fail?', 'what if they don’t like me?'
Anxiety can be triggered by situations such as starting in a new school, being in a new neighbourhood or even after watching a horror movie. This is an natural response.
Support may be needed:
- do not criticise for being afraid: we all are afraid of something to different degrees
- acknowledge the fear – don’t ignore it or minimise it without reason, it's important to the person and it is unpleasant to feel like that
- be kind and encourage them to slowly do the things they feel anxious about, without pushing them or putting too much pressure on them. Respect their timing and offer support, praising every step they take
- don’t over react: be close but give them the opportunity to deal with the anxiety by themselves before actively helping. They might be able to overcome the obstacles by themselves.
When the feeling doesn’t go away, we call this an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are described as an overwhelming feeling of intense fear – disproportionate to the situation. They can have a specific trigger – spiders, heights, dogs, or can be triggered by a more general situation, such as public speaking, having someone we love die or being very ill, wetting the bed, etc.
There are different kinds of anxiety, depending on what is causing it. For example:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder: the person worries about multiple common things. It goes beyond “being worried”: It feels more intense, it lasts for longer and it doesn’t have a clear focus. The key message is “I feel like I can’t control it, it controls me ” (the worries).
- Social Anxiety: the person feels a great fear of being humiliated during social interactions, to the point where it is almost impossible for them to socialise, or even participate in a context where they are going to be exposed.
- Separation Anxiety: the person, usually children, experiences great distress when they are separated from their parents or caregivers. It is disproportionate to their age and prevents the person from doing things like going to school or to a friend’s house.
- Phobia: The person feels irrational fear of something that wouldn’t usually be considered as a threat, for example, birds, water, spiders, fire,or heights. They will show extreme avoidance behaviours and these can interfere with their day to day life.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder : the person has intrusive thoughts, obsessions and/or ritualistic behaviours, or compulsions that make them extremely anxious.
It is a reason for concern when anxiety symptoms:
- appear without cause or trigger
- are caused by something specific, but continue even after the cause already disappeared
- are too big compared to the size of the threat, like when we get a panic attack just by thinking of the possibility of facing something we fear
- keep the person from engaging in their daily activities or things they want to do.
Symptoms and signs to look out for
- feeling that something bad is going to happen: intense fear
- shaking and sweating
- vertigo and dizziness
- stomach pain, headaches, chest pains in the situation that triggers the anxiety
- the feeling of being out control. Even when you try, you feel you can’t control your thoughts and think rationally
- you tend to avoid contact with objects or situations that are triggers. For example, spiders, evaluations, getting an injection at the hospital, being separated from people you love, speaking in public.
A panic attack occurs, when our body takes the normal response to fear or stress to an extreme. It can come with a rapid and strong heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, and feelings of losing control.These symptoms can last for up to 30 minutes and can be a really exhausting experience.
You may even fear that you are going crazy, having a heart attack or that this will not end. It is a difficult experience to go through and the person tends to avoid the places or things associated with these attacks.
It is important to remember:
If you are having a panic attack STOP whatever you are doing and ask for help if someone is around you. Try to keep breathing, using grounding techniques, until you feel more in control and can think clearly what to do next. If at any point you feel like you may harm yourself or others, call 111.
Look around you, while you breathe as calmly as you can, and:
- Find 4 things you can see
- Find 4 things you can smell
- Find 4 things you can feel
- Finally, find 4 things you can hear
If it’s necessary, repeat the full cycle one more time.
Most mental health professionals suggest that anxiety disorders can be treated successfully by using a combination of therapy, relaxation techniques and change of habits and, in complex or acute cases, medication.
If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety symptoms you can ask for help.
In the links below, you can find useful information: