We all encounter moments of worry or stress in our daily lives. These feelings are a natural part of being human, particularly in times of uncertainty. However, for some individuals, this anxiety does not merely pass.
This persistent anxiety can drastically hamper one’s ability to engage effectively in work, social interactions, and educational pursuits.
The silver lining, though, is that anxiety disorders are treatable, often through anxiety counselling, behavioural therapies and, in some cases, medication.
This combination has been proven highly beneficial for many grappling with anxiety disorders.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can manifest in many ways, each as unique as the individual experiencing it. Here are some of the most commonly observed symptoms associated with anxiety:
What Causes Anxiety?
Anxiety can be considered a survival mechanism hardwired into our biology. The “fight or flight” response, a primary aspect of our ancestral survival kit, is essentially a manifestation of acute anxiety.
This response to perceived threats allowed our ancestors to react swiftly to danger. In modern times, our threats aren’t typically predators but complex social and environmental stressors.
However, our bodies still respond in much the same way, creating feelings of fear and apprehension that we recognise as anxiety.
While this perspective provides an overarching understanding of anxiety’s roots, numerous other contributing factors exist.
These can vary significantly from person to person and may overlap in many cases. Some of the factors are:
Environmental Factors: Traumatic events, like abuse or divorce, can lead to an anxiety disorder.
Medical Factors: Physical health issues, like thyroid or heart arrhythmias, can produce anxiety symptoms.
Genetics: Anxiety disorders may be hereditary due to a possible genetic link in families.
Brain Chemistry: Misalignments in brain circuits related to other emotions could contribute to anxiety.
Substance Use: Both caffeine and alcohol, as well as certain illicit drugs, can cause or worsen anxiety.
Remember, having one or more risk factors does not mean a person will develop an anxiety disorder.
These elements may increase the likelihood, while the actual development of anxiety disorders can be a complex interplay of many factors.
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
Experiencing anxiety often feels like being in a constant state of worry or fear.
It’s similar to the nervous feeling you get before a big presentation or event, except it doesn’t fade away once the event is over.
This persistent apprehension can make everyday activities feel overwhelming and make it difficult to relax or unwind.
Physical sensations can accompany these feelings, such as a racing heartbeat, fast breathing, or an unsettled feeling in the stomach. These can be as subtle as a faint sense of discomfort or as intense as feeling like you’re having a heart attack.
In severe cases, anxiety can evoke a feeling of impending doom, as though something terrible is about to happen, even when there is no apparent danger.
It’s important to note that anxiety can vary widely from person to person. Some might feel a low but constant level of anxiety.
In contrast, others may have more sporadic but intense bouts, often called panic attacks.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Understanding the individual nature of each type of anxiety disorder is key to seeking appropriate treatment and managing symptoms effectively.
1. Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder is characterised by chronic, excessive worry that is difficult to control and lasts at least six months.
Individuals with GAD often anticipate disaster and are excessively concerned about everyday matters such as health, money, family, or work.
This constant state of worry can make it difficult for them to perform daily tasks, and they may struggle with concentration and decision-making.
For instance, someone with GAD might spend hours every day worrying about a range of things, from whether they left the stove on to whether they’re performing well at work to concerns about the health of a perfectly healthy loved one.
2. Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is characterised by recurrent and unpredictable panic attacks – intense bouts of fear that peak within minutes.
Symptoms can include palpitations, sweating, trembling, and feelings of impending doom.
This disorder can impact a person’s daily life as they often fear when the next panic attack might occur. This fear can restrict their activities as they may start to avoid places or situations they associate with past attacks.
For example, someone who had a panic attack in a crowded mall might start to avoid going to any overcrowded places out of fear of having another attack.
This can lead to them missing out on social events, avoiding certain parts of town, and even developing agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is the fear of places or circumstances that might cause panic.
3. Specific Phobias
Specific phobias entail an intense, persistent fear of particular objects or situations.
This fear is usually disproportionate to the actual danger posed. Individuals with specific phobias may go to great lengths to avoid what they fear, making it disruptive to their daily lives.
For instance, an individual with a specific phobia could have an extreme fear of spiders (arachnophobia).
Even the thought or image of a spider could trigger intense fear, leading them to avoid places known for spiders, like the woods.
They also regularly check their surroundings for spiders. This can limit their activities and create constant stress.
4. Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is characterised by high fear, anxiety, and avoidance of social situations. This is due to embarrassment and concern about being negatively judged by others.
Social phobia is more than just shyness — it is an intense fear that can interfere with work, school, and other daily activities and can make it hard to form and maintain relationships.
A person with a social anxiety disorder may dread everyday activities like meeting strangers, speaking in groups, or even eating in front of others.
For example, they might turn down a promotion at work to avoid giving presentations or social outings altogether, leading to isolation.
5. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves recurring, unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviours or compulsions.
Individuals with OCD might feel compelled to perform certain rituals to manage their anxiety. These compulsive behaviours can consume a lot of time and significantly interfere with their daily lives.
For instance, an individual with OCD might have a fear of germs, leading to obsessive hand-washing.
This obsession could consume hours of their day, interfere with their work, and even lead to physical issues like dry, chapped skin.
6. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
It’s possible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing or seeing a traumatic event.
Those dealing with PTSD may have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings about the event long after it has ended.
These thoughts can manifest as flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, making it difficult to function in daily life.
For example, a veteran suffering from PTSD might have flashbacks to a combat situation, causing them to avoid loud noises or crowds.
They might have trouble sleeping due to recurring nightmares about the event. This leads to fatigue and difficulty concentrating during the day.
In each of these anxiety disorders, the unifying thread is excessive, uncontrollable anxiety.
These conditions are treatable, and the first step to getting help is understanding the specific nature of the anxiety disorder.
Myths and Facts About Anxiety
There are many myths and misconceptions about anxiety disorders. Here are eight of them:
Anxiety isn’t a real illness.
Anxiety disorders are a real condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. They can significantly impact a person’s health.
Anxiety disorders are a sign of weakness.
Anxiety disorders are not a result of personal weakness. They can affect anyone, regardless of their strength or resilience.
Anxiety disorders are just an extreme form of normal worry.
While worrying or feeling anxious in certain situations is normal, anxiety disorders are far more intense. They involve excessive worry and fear that persist and can worsen over time.
Only traumatic experiences can cause anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders can also result from a combination of genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
People with anxiety disorders just need to “snap out of it.”
Anxiety disorders are complex and cannot simply be overcome through willpower. Suggesting otherwise can make individuals feel more misunderstood and isolated.
Anxiety disorders are not treatable.
On the contrary, anxiety disorders are among the most treatable. They can be managed effectively with therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication.
Medication is the only solution for anxiety disorders.
It is often most effective when combined with other treatments, like cognitive-behavioural therapy and mindfulness techniques.
Anxiety disorders will eventually go away on their own.
Without treatment, anxiety can persist for many years. It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Successfully addressing anxiety requires a comprehensive approach. These may include cognitive-behavioural therapy, medication, self-care strategies, and sometimes complementary therapies.
This section explores these interventions in-depth, highlighting how they help individuals manage and overcome anxiety.
Types of Anxiety Therapy
1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy is a well-regarded treatment for anxiety. It focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing thought and behaviour patterns that lead to anxious feelings.
In CBT, individuals are guided to recognise thoughts that cause them distress. For instance, a person who automatically associates workplace challenges with personal failure would be helped to notice this pattern.
Subsequently, therapists work with them to reframe such negative thoughts. This person might learn to see such challenges as opportunities for growth instead of personal inadequacies.
Practical coping strategies form an essential part of CBT. Techniques like progressive muscle relaxation or visualisation exercises are taught.
For example, someone afraid of flying might practice calming visualisations of peaceful travel.
2. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy specifically aims to reduce fear and avoidance behaviours associated with anxiety triggers. This therapy is especially beneficial for specific phobias and PTSD.
The therapeutic process involves gradual, controlled exposure to anxiety-inducing situations or objects.
For instance, an individual with a spider phobia may first be shown pictures of spiders. Progressively, exposures become more direct, enabling the individual to hold a spider or be in a room with one.
The goal is for the person to learn that their fears are often outsized compared to reality. This reduces their instinctual fear response.
3. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy
DBT, a subtype of CBT, combines traditional cognitive-behavioural techniques with mindfulness practices.
It’s an effective treatment for disorders characterised by intense, fluctuating emotions. DBT comprises modules like mindfulness, encouraging individuals to focus on the present moment rather than worrying about the past or future.
For example, someone with social anxiety might be taught to focus on the conversation at hand instead of worrying about what others think.
Other modules include distress tolerance and emotional regulation. Through this, individuals learn to accept and endure emotional discomfort.
They also learn to develop skills to manage intense emotional reactions without resorting to maladaptive behaviours.
4. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
ACT, another variant of CBT, takes a unique approach to dealing with anxiety. Instead of trying to modify or eliminate distressing thoughts, ACT encourages the acceptance of these thoughts as transient mental events.
Cognitive defusion, a central technique in ACT, helps individuals perceive thoughts as mere words, not factual truths.
A person fearing a job interview might believe, “I will fail because I’m not good enough.” Cognitive defusion would guide them to see this thought as just that – a thought, not an inevitable truth.
ACT also encourages commitment to actions aligning with personal values. It helps individuals live meaningful lives despite their anxiety.
If someone values social connection but avoids parties due to anxiety, ACT would help them commit to attending social gatherings, thus honouring their value of connection.
What to Expect From Anxiety Counselling
When starting anxiety counselling, here’s what you can typically expect:
Initial Assessment: The first session will involve a comprehensive assessment. The therapist will enquire about your symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle to understand your experiences and needs.
Treatment Planning: Your therapist will develop a personalised treatment plan based on your assessment. This plan will outline the therapeutic approach, the proposed length of treatment, and the goals you’ll work towards.
Skill Learning: As therapy progresses, you will learn and practise new skills to manage anxiety. These could be cognitive strategies to challenge negative thoughts or relaxation techniques to calm your body.
Regular Check-Ins: Your therapist will check your progress and adjust the treatment plan as necessary. This ensures the therapy remains tailored to your evolving needs and experiences.
Homework: Therapy often includes tasks to complete outside of sessions. These may include practising newly learned skills, journaling about your experiences, or challenging yourself to face anxiety-inducing situations.
Long-Term Strategies: Towards the end of therapy, your counsellor will work with you to develop a long-term strategy to manage anxiety. This will help you maintain your progress even after therapy concludes.
Remember, it’s crucial to maintain open communication with your therapist throughout the process. Discussing any concerns or difficulties you’re facing can significantly enhance the effectiveness of your treatment.
How to Make the Most of Therapy
Therapy can be a transformative journey, but you may need to play an active role to make the most out of it.
Firstly, it’s essential to find a therapist you feel comfortable with. Building a strong therapeutic relationship is central to effective therapy.
You should feel safe to openly discuss your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without fear of judgment.
Secondly, be open and honest during your sessions. It might be challenging to share certain things, but remember that your therapist is there to help, not to judge.
The more honest you are about your experiences and feelings, the more effective your therapy can be.
Thirdly, engage with the process outside of your sessions. This might involve completing homework tasks, practising new skills, or reflecting on your sessions.
The work you do outside of your sessions can greatly enhance the progress you make within them.
Finally, don’t be afraid to provide feedback to your therapist!
If you’re finding certain aspects of therapy difficult, or if you’re not sure you’re making progress – discussing these concerns with your therapist can be hugely beneficial.
Here are some practical points to consider:
Questions to ask your therapist:
Preparation for therapy:
Remember, therapy is a partnership between you and your therapist. By actively engaging with the process and keeping open lines of communication, you can make significant strides towards managing your anxiety.
Know the signs.
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