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Many people feel anxious from time to time—it’s a common and natural response to stress. But if feelings of anxiety are interrupting your life, it may be time to do something about it. This article will discuss what anxiety is, what causes it, how serious it can be, and what you can do about it.
It has been my most loyal companion and my worst enemy for as long as I can remember. It comes and goes as it pleases, wreaking havoc on my life, as I never know how long it will last. But I know that I will be physically exhausted, emotionally overwhelmed, and mentally drained by the time it decides to leave me alone again.
Knowing that I am in the company of roughly 275 million others, or one out of 13 individuals, does little to make me feel better. So, I decided to learn as much as I could about my uninvited guest and to share my findings.
The culprit of all this misery is anxiety, the world's biggest mental health problem, according to the World Economic Forum.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a persistent and debilitating worry about the future, about something that hasn’t happened yet, or may never happen. People with anxiety may find themselves constantly living in the “what if” instead of “now.”
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety may be caused by many different things—some of which you can control, and some you cannot. For example:
- Gender: Women are more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of those suffering from anxiety are female.
- Age: The risk of suffering from anxiety is higher between childhood and middle age.
- Culture: Anxiety is more common in Western, more individualistic and work-oriented cultures than in Eastern, more family and society-oriented cultures.
- Family history: Anxiety can be genetic. This means if your parents suffered from anxiety, you have greater odds of inheriting it.
- Personal experiences: Significant life changes, traumatic or negative events, as well as a timid, overly vigilant, or negative personality may increase the probability of suffering from anxiety.
- Health: An upsetting or difficult health diagnosis such as cancer or chronic illness may produce immediate strong feelings of worry and concern, which can trigger the anxiety response.
- Finances: Worries about being unable to save money, making ends meet, and having debt or unexpected expenses can increase levels of stress and anxiety.
- Work: People spend many of their waking hours at work, and stress from their jobs can lead to anxiety. This is very common for people with heavy workloads, little work-life balance, or toxic work environments.
- Screen time: Too much screen time—whether for work, pleasure, or social interaction—over-stimulates the brain and nervous system. Technology addiction can also make one feel nervous, lonely, and at a loss when separated from gadgets.
- Relationships and friendships: Arguments, disagreements, and stress in our friendships, or problems in our romantic relationships, may make us feel overwhelmed. Even happy events, like marriage or having a baby, can bring unexpected, negative emotions that are difficult to deal with.
What is an anxiety attack?
Anxiety attack is the commonly used term used to describe worsening symptoms of anxiety that build over time and are often triggered by a specific stressful or threatening event. These symptoms may reach an overwhelming level that may feel like an “attack.”
Symptoms of anxiety
Symptoms vary from person to person and can be both physical and emotional.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Difficulty breathing. When you’re anxious, you breathe shallowly or stop breathing altogether, gasping for air, which leads to a deficient oxygen intake.
- Increased heart rate. In severe cases, it may feel like you are going to have a heart attack, but you’re not. Rather, your heart is preparing for a flight or fight response, sending the blood where it is needed most.
- Skin tingling or numbness. This can occur almost anywhere on the body. Again, it’s caused by the body preparing itself to fight or flight, leaving the less important parts of your body feeling numb or tingly.
- Sweating or feeling cold. The fight or flight adrenaline discharge leads to a rise in body temperature. As your body tries to cool you down, you may start feeling cold, and shivering.
- Sleep problems. At night, your mind is left alone trying to solve your real or imaginary problems. This builds even more tension, leading to difficulty or inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. You may wake up in the middle of the night or wake in the morning not feeling rested.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling restless, irritable, or on edge. As your brain and body are overstressed with anxiety emotions, you may have little patience when something does not go your way, and you may take it out on people who are trying to help.
- Worrying too much. When you experience anxiety, you continue to worry about daily problems even when there's no clear reason to do so. Your brain may become foggy, your memory may fail, and you may experience difficulty making decisions.
- Fearing that something bad is going to happen. You may become overwhelmed and paralyzed by fear which is completely out of proportion to the situation or circumstances we are living.
- Withdrawing from social contact. As you use most of your mental and emotional energy to deal with negative emotions and obsessive thoughts, you may not have any left to socialize. This could lead to you distancing yourself from family and friends, making you feel lonely.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are several types of anxiety disorders. Understanding which you might be dealing with can help you better address it.
- Generalized anxiety disorder involves constant debilitating worrying over everyday things. You may be dealing with GAD if worry becomes persistent and uncontrollable over six months or more, interferes with your ability to function normally, and extends to a wide range of activities.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder makes us engage in repetitive behaviors that provide temporary relief from unwanted thoughts and urges.
- Phobias are extreme fears of certain things, places, or events which can be disruptive to our lives.
- Panic disorder is a condition in which a person has episodes of intense fear or anxiety that occur out of the blue, often without warning or trigger. When having a panic attack, people experience terror and fear of losing control, and often feel like they are going crazy, having a heart attack, or dying.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people who have experienced trauma, causing nightmares and flashbacks about the traumatic event.
- Social anxiety disorder makes people feel self-conscious and to have intense fears of social interactions.
Things that make anxiety worse
The lists above can be downright anxiety-inducing! While we all experience some level of anxiety at times, there are conditions and circumstances to be aware of and avoid if you tend to struggle with anxiety anyhow. In addition to the many causes of anxiety, these factors can make it worse:
- Depression: Depressed people may shut down and feel isolated when they become overwhelmed by excessive irritability, hopelessness, helplessness, and sadness. Their only focus is on negative or traumatic experiences of the past, which can lead to increased levels of anxiety. In fact, nearly 70 percent of people who suffer from depression also have anxiety, and 50 percent of those with anxiety have clinical depression.
- Stress: Under stress, your brain releases hormones that trigger a fight or flight response to a mental or physical threat, whether real or imaginary. This reaction leads to increased alertness as your body tries to protect you from danger. When stress becomes persistent and you can't control it, it affects your mental health and leads to anxiety and depression.
- Alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol alters the chemical function of your body. While it may provide short-term relief, it will lead to more unpleasant physical and mental sensations when it wears off. This, in turn, will lead to more anxiety. The same holds true for caffeine and energy drinks; the temporary boost of energy comes at the cost of worsening feelings of anxiousness when the effect wears off.
Tips to control anxiety
While feeling anxious may be beyond your control, there are still many things you can control to reduce worry, stress, and anxiety. For example:
- Educate yourself about how anxiety works.
- Do a simple body scan, noticing where in the body you feel anxiety. Try to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and bring your hand to the part of the body most affected by anxiety. Visualize the release of tension until it subsides, or alternate physically increasing the tension and relaxing.
- Do a quick mental scan. What emotions are you feeling when attacked by anxiety? Name them and then try to uncover their root cause. Change what you can and let the rest take care of itself.
- Try stress management techniques such as progressive relaxation, breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness, or aromatherapy.
- Get out of your house and be in nature. It not only decreases anxiety but also increases the sense of well-being.
- Exercise regularly. It helps you boost your energy, reduce tension. and improve your mood.
- Cut down on screen time, especially before bedtime, as it can affect sleep quality.
- Avoid caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and drugs for anxiety relief— those will only make it worse.
- Consider joining an online or in-person support group.
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Other ways to treat anxiety
When self-help techniques aren’t enough, you may want to consider other types of anxiety treatment:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you to manage anxiety by helping you understand how you think and act when you’re anxious and how the way you think and act can reinforce your anxiety.
- Acupuncture, the Chinese technique to treat many medical ailments by inserting thin needles into various active parts of the body, can help reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Natural remedies and complementary treatments could be an alternative to ease the symptoms of anxiety without having side effects associated with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.
- Anti-anxiety prescribed medicine can help control anxiety symptoms or ease fears or panic. However, they can have side effects, and should only be used under guidance from your doctor. You have to be open to discuss with your doctor how these medicines make you feel, and never stop taking anti-anxiety medicines on your own or use them with drugs or alcohol.
When to see a doctor
Just as in other areas of your life, there are times when professional help is your best option. A doctor will have more training and experience around how to get rid of anxiety, so you can get back to living life. You may want to see a doctor if:
- You experience excessive anxiety and worry most days for at least 6 months.
- Your symptoms significantly interfere with your normal daily life and activities.
- Anxiety is harming your physical well-being, including sleep quality, muscle aches, and stomach problems.
- You find yourself spending most of your time at home, staying away from people, places, or events that you used to enjoy.
- You turn to alcohol or drugs to ease constant anxiety and fear of panic attacks.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or harming others, it´s essential to seek immediate medical help through an emergency line or hospital.
BetterUp Fellow Coach