Acknowledging Anxiety and Discovering How to Best Tackle It
By Elisa Furlan
reviewed by juliana ascolani
Mental health is an important and widely researched topic. It’s the ability to think, learn, and understand emotions in a state of balance, both within and with the environment. However, according to the World Health Organization, around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents suffer from some kind of mental problem; overall, one in five people have a mental health condition.
Mental health disorders include, but aren’t limited to, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. The people who suffer from these disorders have a variety of symptoms, ranging from abnormal thoughts, perceptions, and emotions, to tiredness and confusion. Although there are many ways to prevent or treat mental health disorders, admitting you have a mental health disorder is still a big taboo in today’s societies. While in a 2011 NHS Information Centre report, 85% of the people stated that they would feel comfortable consulting a general practitioner if they thought they had a mental health problem and 70% said that they would talk to a friend or a family member, the percentage significantly drops when it comes to talking to an employer, with only 42% of the people saying they would find it comfortable.
What is anxiety?
One of the most common mental illnesses is anxiety; it’s estimated that 40 million American adults suffer from it. Although we all worry about things from time to time, as Dr. Mona Potter explains, it can become a problem when “anxiety gets out of hand and makes decisions for us that are no longer helpful — maybe even paralyzing.” People who suffer from anxiety are always in a high state of fear or panic most days of the week and usually for several months at a time. Anxiety can come on suddenly, triggered by a crisis or a period of stress, or it can be something they have always felt. Either way, it starts to affect their day-to-day life.
What are the most common types of anxiety?
Anxiety disorders include a wide range of mental health disorders that can vary greatly. However, there are some anxiety disorders that are more common than others:
- Panic disorder: People who suffer from it can have panic attacks – a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms ranging from racing heartbeat to nausea – or sudden feelings of terror that come without warning. Moreover, they can have physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, and fear of dying.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: OCD is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder that affects people’s everyday life. People who suffer from OCD have reoccurring, uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts or behaviors that they feel the need to repeat over and over again. According to the NIH – National Institute of Mental Health — the most common symptoms include: fear of germs, unwanted thoughts involving sex, religion, or harm, aggressive thoughts towards others or self, and placing things in a perfect or symmetrical order.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Although it’s natural to feel afraid after a traumatic situation, those who continue to experience problems – such as feeling stressed or frightened, even when there’s no real danger – for a long time may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who suffer from PTSD are likely to experience depression, flashbacks, irritability, and nightmares.
- Phobia: Fear is a feeling that everyone experiences from time to time. However, people who suffer from phobias feel an extreme, disabling fear towards something that poses no real danger. There are a lot of phobias, but the most common ones are agoraphobia – the fear of the outside world – social phobia (also known as social anxiety), and phobia of heights, tunnels, bridges, and flying.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): It’s a chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday life, that lasts six or more months. People who experience GAD always expect the worst to happen, even though there’s no real reason for that. They also experience physical symptoms like fatigue, trembling, nausea, or headache.
- Health anxiety: It’s the irrational and constant fear about your health. People who suffer from health anxiety are always checking their bodies for signs of illnesses and are always asking other people for reassurance about their wellbeing. They also obsessively look at health information on the internet and media and worry that their doctor may be wrong about a diagnosis.
- Social anxiety: It’s an illness that can stop you from doing things that you like – going to events, working nights out, eating out – because it involves the presence of other people. It can also start taking a toll on your life, because it can stop you from going to work, college, or various appointments that involve people.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
As we’ve seen, anxiety disorders cover a wide range of mental illnesses. It’s therefore impossible to list all the symptoms a person who is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may experience. However, there are some symptoms that are common to most types of anxiety. These include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Panic attacks
Anxiety can also make it difficult for you to maintain a healthy lifestyle, preventing you from exercising or eating healthy foods – two key activities when it comes to health. However, symptoms may disappear – permanently or temporarily – if you remove yourself from the stressful environment or situation.
Who can suffer from anxiety?
Anxiety disorders can affect everyone. It’s estimated that about 25% of adults will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. However, it can also affect children and young adults.
According to the CDC, in the USA 7.1% of children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety – and it’s estimated that the percentage will rise in the following years.
Children who suffer from anxiety may experience one or more of the following disorders:
- Being afraid when their parents are away – also called separation anxiety.
- Having one or more phobias – e.g., towards dogs, insects, doctors.
- Being very afraid of places where there are many people – the aforesaid social anxiety.
- Being worried about the future and about bad things happening – also called general anxiety.
- Suffering from panic attacks.
Anxiety may or may not pass with time. A study has shown that university students are at a greater risk of developing depression and related symptoms, like anxiety. Perceived academic stress, retreat from studies, and loneliness at university are predictors of depressive symptoms.
Moreover, studies have shown that university students are likely to see their anxiety level spike during the first period of their college years. In particular, a four-year longitudinal study analysed the level of anxiety in 5,532 university students. Results showed that during the first two years of college students experience a decrease in self-esteem, active emotional coping, and social support from friends, as well as an increase in anxiety, stress, and depression. There’s also a significant difference between men and women. Women, although they experience more distress and lower self-esteem, have a higher chance than men of recovering their self-esteem level by the end of college; men, on the other hand, have less support from friends and trouble with active emotional coping.
Why does one suffer from anxiety?
Now that we have a general knowledge of what anxiety is and what anxiety disorders involve, it’s important to talk about why one may suffer from anxiety. As always, considering that there are different anxiety disorders, the risk factors may vary depending on the disorder. Some general risk factors for all types of anxiety disorders are:
- Shyness and behavioral inhibition in childhood.
- Genetic factors, such as a history of mental illnesses in the family.
- Exposure to stress and negativity in early childhood or adulthood.
There are also some uncommon things that may trigger an anxiety disorder – one is perfectionism. Although no one is perfect, some people may feel the need to do everything well. “Trying to be perfect can trigger a cascade of anxiety,” says clinical psychologist Jeff Szymanski. According to him, perfectionism can lead you to become obsessed with making no mistakes, stopping you from completing any task for fear of doing something wrong.
Sleep problems may be a trigger as well as a symptom of an anxiety disorder. According to Harvard Health Publishing, chronic sleep problems affect 50 to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice. Sleep problems are common in people with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. They are especially common in people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder – more than 50% of adults diagnosed with GAD have sleep problems – and also in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, sleep interruption stemming from PTSD could cause negative emotional memories to surface and hamper the benefits of fear-extinguishing therapies.
What can you do about it?
For far too long mental health problems have been perceived as a sign of weakness and failure, and too many people have suffered from mental health problems without asking for help. “Anxiety is highly treatable, but men may not want to talk about it and feel they can take care of the problem themselves,” says psychiatry specialist Dr. Cornelia Cremens. But the most important thing when experiencing distress of any kind is to get help.
Nowadays, it’s getting easier to talk about mental health and to get help, but things are still far from perfect. According to the Mental Health Foundation, only 36.2% of people who suffer from mental health problems receive treatment. There’s also a difference between men and women: only 9% of men receive treatments for any mental health condition, whereas 15% of women do so. Moreover, young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are less likely to receive treatment than any other age group.
However, if you’re not feeling ready to tackle mental health through professional therapy, there are lifestyle changes that could help you manage anxiety.
- Set up daily goals: As Dr. Cremens suggests, writing down daily goals and tasks and crossing them off when you’re done can keep your mind satisfied.
- Meditation: Interest towards mindfulness meditation as a strategy for anxiety disorders has increased in recent years. According to one study, meditation can help you with GAD symptoms, and also improve stress reactivity and coping mechanisms.
- Tai chi chuan: A recent study has shown the positive effects of a 12-week tai chi chuan program. Each session, repeated three times per week, included a 10-minute warm-up, 30-minute exercise, and 10-minute cool down. By using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) evaluation, results showed that levels of trait anxiety – anxiety levels as a personal characteristic – and state anxiety – anxiety about an event – were both decreased significantly.
- Laughter therapy: It’s a psychotherapeutic technique that provides mental and emotional benefits through laughter, improving your wellbeing and your health. Studies on 157 participants have shown that laughter therapy is an effective complementary method that can help you decrease anxiety levels.
- Calming breathing techniques: The NHS explains a particular breathing technique that can help you destress and calm your anxiety, if done regularly. It can be done standing, sitting down, or lying on a bed. If you’re in a period of your life where you’re feeling overwhelmed, you could take a couple of minutes a day to try this technique.
- Exercise: Exercising can benefit your health greatly. Studies have shown that including exercise in your routine can help you reduce your anxiety levels. Results also indicated that exercise groups taking part in one particular study experienced greater reductions in anxiety compared to groups that received other forms of anxiety-reducing treatment.
Can you prevent anxiety?
Although we’ve seen that anxiety can be related to genetics or triggered by a certain event, there are studies that have shown that early intervention is the best way to stop the problem from becoming unbearable. One study, conducted on 128 children, showed that a brief but effective intervention can alleviate anxiety problems in the long-term. The children were assigned to a 10-week school-based psychological intervention, where they received mental support and therapy. At the six-month, one-year, and two-year follow-up, the intervention group showed an improvement in existing anxiety levels.
Another study, conducted on a group of high school students with elevated risk for developing emotional disorders, showed the efficacy of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The anxiety and depression levels of the students were measured before and after treatment, and after another three and six months. Results showed significant improvements in mood and self-esteem.
A similar study was conducted on adolescents and young adults. The participants were treated by targeting the excessive levels of repetitive negative thinking – such as worry and rumination – and tested again after a year. Once again, results showed that both the rate of depression and generalized anxiety disorder dropped significantly.
As we’ve seen, anxiety disorders can affect everyone. But the most important thing is talking about our problems and getting help. As shown in this article, there are a lot of people who struggle with mental health disorders every day; if you’re feeling down, or you feel like your mind is taking a toll on your life, please seek help. We all deserve to live a happy and fulfilling life.
I am a positive and enthusiastic writer with an enormous passion for books. I am mostly interested in the fields of equal rights, global environment, and justice. I believe in the power of words: everything we know, we know because we read about it, heard it on the news, or someone told us – it is all connected to words. Contributing to change this world – the one and only one we will ever know – is a privilege as well as a duty: everyone can write something on the internet, especially these days; not everyone, though, can communicate effectively. It is my goal to help this world change, word by word.
I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.
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