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All About Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & More

Ever had that nervous, worried feeling before an exam? What about that feeling of fear as you wait for your crush to text you back? 😵‍💫

Anxiety is very normal, but that doesn’t stop it from being an unpleasant experience! It’s a feeling of unease that can appear as worry or fear, and can be anything from uncomfortable to severe and debilitating. One in 20 people will experience an anxiety disorder, which is when levels of anxiety are considered to be a mental illness. 

While all of us have probably felt anxious at some point, anxiety is a mental health condition like any other, with causes, symptoms, and even treatments. Here’s the How Mental lowdown on everything you need to know. 😘

So, what is anxiety?

Anxiety is that feeling of unease when we’re nervous, worried, or scared. It could be a sense of panic about something that hasn’t happened yet, or excessive overthinking about how you came across in that random conversation yesterday.

But if we're experiencing it more often than not and it affects our day-to-day life, it might be an anxiety ‘disorder’.

Anxiety is felt on a spectrum, from mild and temporary symptoms, like feeling restless, wound-up, or irritable, to severe disorders.

Anxiety disorders

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, with the most common being generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorders and phobia-related disorders. 

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to when we display excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months.This fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of life, like during social situations, or perhaps at work or at school. 

Panic disorders are when we have recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden and intense waves of fear and anxiety. They happen quickly and usually last between 5-20 minutes, although some can be longer. Attacks can be triggered by something, for example a feared object or situation, but they can also happen unexpectedly & seemingly out of the blue. 🙀

Phobia-related disorder is an intense fear or aversion to specific objects or situations. We may have an irrational or excessive worry about encountering the feared object or situation and take active steps to avoid them. If we have to face the feared scenario, we’re likely to react with immense and immediate anxiety!

Bonus Disorders ✨ There are several types of phobias and phobia-related disorders, like a fear of heights or flying, social anxiety disorder and separation anxiety disorder. #yay

What does anxiety feel like? 🧐

No two experiences of anxiety will be identical. But, there are some common themes and symptoms among them that can give us an idea of how it feels:

We know from research into anxiety and personal experiences that anxiety can affect both our minds and our bodies

When we feel anxious, our body sends us into flight or fight mode — a survival mechanism that prepares us to either stay and fight, or run for our lives like we’re being chased by a tiger. 🐅

In an attempt to help us fight off whatever has made us anxious, our brain floods our central nervous systems with stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. 🙈

These hormones tell our body that something scary is about to happen: they sharpen our senses and make our reflexes faster to help us cope with the potential danger. In a non-anxious brain, the sympathetic part of our nervous system takes over and calms us down once the danger is gone.

But when we suffer from anxiety, that sense of calm may not be as easy to reach. Instead, the rush of stress hormones causes our brain to release even more stress hormones until we’re simply overwhelmed — causing the feelings of anxiety. 🙃

Anxiety can affect the mind by making us feel tense or nervous, having a sense of dread, constant worrying, low mood, depersonalisation and derealisation. 😢

Both depersonalisation and derealisation are types of dissociation, in which we may feel disconnected from our mind and bodies, or the world around us. Some dissociative disorders are very short lived and resolve on their own over a matter of weeks or months. Others can last much longer…

Physical ways in which anxiety can affect our bodies include panic attacks, sleep problems, feeling light-headed, feeling restless, a churning feeling in your stomach, nausea, faster breathing and an irregular heartbeat. 🤮

It’s worth remembering that everyone's anxiety may affect them in different ways. So take this section as a kind of overview: If your experience isn’t named here, it doesn’t make it any less valid!

What causes anxiety? 

Because anxiety is such an individual experience, there is pretty much an infinite list of all the different things that could possibly cause or trigger it. Remember, anxiety is how our body responds when it perceives a threat — which could be something different for everyone!

But, there are some common factors that can make anxiety problems more likely to happen. 

According to the Mental Health Foundation, factors that can increase the likelihood of anxiety occurring include past or childhood experiences such as trauma, current life situation such as a build-up of stress, physical and mental health problems such as serious health conditions or other mental health conditions such as depression, and drugs and medication which could induce anxiety as a side effect. 👌

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking: can I prevent anxiety? 

To put it simply, no you can’t — just like we can’t prevent falling off our bike. But if we're wearing a helmet, we can prevent that fall from being very dangerous and hurting us badly! 🥰

We can do this with our anxiety as well. We can’t prevent it, but we can take some steps to reduce the severity of it…

Things like eating healthy and looking after our bodies, cutting out caffeine and alcohol, taking time every day for ourselves and ensuring we are not overworking ourselves. A 2020 study found that moving more, and sitting less were protective factors against anxiety as being more physically active, and taking on a healthy lifestyle was seen to improve sleep and ultimately mental health.

These things may not get rid of anxiety though, but they can certainly help reduce symptoms. 

How can I treat anxiety?

Anxiety may not be preventable, but it can be treated! 🥳🥳🥳

For some people, medical involvement may NOT be necessary, just a lifestyle change may be enough to tackle the anxiety. However, for the more serious cases, anxiety treatment options fall into two categories: psychotherapy and medication. 

Psychotherapy is more commonly known as talk therapy - what that means is the treatment revolves around talking to a psychiatrist or psychologist with the aim of uncovering and treating mental health problems. A study into the effectiveness of psychotherapy to treat anxiety found that 73% of patients saw a reduction in symptoms. 😍

On the other hand, medication works to balance brain chemistry, which can help to prevent episodes of anxiety and ward off the most severe symptoms of the disorder. One study found that self-reported scores of anxiety decreased significantly as a result of medication. Importantly, the study saw the biggest effect when both medication and therapy are used together! 👫

There are LOADS of treatment options out there, so talk to a medical professional to understand which treatment plan is most suitable for you. 

So, how can I cope with anxiety?

Anxiety is often a long-term or recurring experience, which means that alongside treatment we all gotta live with our symptoms!

The NHS offers us with some idea of how we can try to help ourselves with our anxiety. Like trying to talk about our feelings to a loved one, a health professional or a counsellor; doing calming breathing exercises; and exercising in ways that make us feel good. We also want to eat a healthy diet with regular meals to keep our energy levels stable. 🍏

There have been a bunch of studies into ways to cope with our anxiety, including a 2015 study which discussed exercise as a treatment for anxiety, in which exercise was shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and that it could be a useful treatment option.

Another 2015 study looked at self-regulation of breathing as a treatment for anxiety. What this study shows is that reversing the body's stress responses caused by anxiety with meditation and breathing techniques rather than medication may be a superior method to address the effects of anxiety on the body.

Remember, we’re all different, so what works for one of us may not work for someone else! So don’t be discouraged if you feel like you’ve tried all these things and had no success. This may just be a sign that you need some expert input to help you out. 😇

When should I see a doctor? 

It is important to understand when our anxious thoughts have turned into an anxiety disorder, and when we might benefit from professional help. 💪

Plain and simple: Seek medical advice if anxiety is affecting your daily life or causing you distress. 

Unsure about your anxiety, or want some help understanding your mental health a bit better? Discover more knowledge and tools on www.howmental.com/discover to help you get to grips with your mental health, and better understand the help you might need.

Remember, anxiety is just a diagnosis. It does NOT define us! It does not contain us. It's not a box any of us fit neatly into. It's more like a signpost that, hopefully, helps us navigate the way our mind works that little bit better. 🧠

I love you 😘

Post by
George Taktak