What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the body’s physical response to a perceived threat. Anxiety symptoms include:
Increased heart rate
‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
Anxiety is our body’s inbuilt mechanism for responding to danger. When our brain’s anxiety system is triggered, a series of biochemical reactions occur that get us ready for survival – the fight/flight/freeze response. Anxiety is a completely natural reaction that is necessary for human survival. Some level of anxiety is also adaptive because it motivates us and enables us to perform at our best.
However, anxiety can become problematic when our brain and body react as if there is danger, when in reality we are safe. Anxiety is a bit like a smoke alarm system. A smoke alarm can help to protect us when there is an actual fire. But when a smoke alarm becomes oversensitive, it gets confused and goes off when there isn’t really a fire. You might have experienced this in your own home, for example, when you have burned some toast in your kitchen! Like a smoke alarm, anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it works right. But, if the anxiety response repeatedly goes off when there is no real danger, it can feel both scary and exhausting. We may experience racing thoughts, a pounding heart, shortness of breath, muscle tension, sweating, dizziness, tingling and other uncomfortable anxiety sensations. We may have panic attacks or develop an irrational fear or strong aversion to something, which is known as a phobia.
Normal anxiety is usually limited in time and connected with a particular stressful situation or event, such as attending a job interview. Anxiety symptoms experienced by people with an anxiety disorder is more frequent or persistent, not always connected to an obvious stressful situation, and impacts on their quality of life and day-to-day functioning.
Common anxiety symptoms include:
Psychological: Excessive fear, worry, catastrophizing (assuming the worst-case scenario), or repetitive thinking
Physical: Increased heart rate, rapid breathing, tightening of the chest, sweaty palms, racing thoughts, restlessness, feeling on edge, muscle tension, panic attacks
Behavioural: Avoidance of situations that make us feel anxious, which can impact on our work, relationships or work
These are just some of a number of anxiety symptoms that you might experience. It’s a good idea to speak to your doctor to find out more about whether you might have an anxiety disorder. It can be helpful to know that anxiety and depression symptoms can also occur together. Click here to find out more about depression.
What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks can occur as part of an anxiety disorder but not everyone with anxiety will experience panic attacks. During a panic attack, a person may suddenly overcome by strong fear and physical symptoms of anxiety, like increased heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing, shaking, feeling dizzy or feeling sick. Panic attacks often feel overwhelming. Someone experiencing a panic attack might feel like they’re losing control or even having a heart attack. This often leads to intense fear of having a panic attack, which can lead to increased anxiety and a greater likelihood that a panic attack will occur.
Do I have an anxiety disorder?
Everyone experiences worry, fear or anxiety from time to time. This it is a normal part of living. However, some people are diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder occurs when anxiety starts to have a severe impact on a person’s life. Rather than feeling anxious in response to actual danger, someone with an anxiety disorder will experience the same symptoms in situations they perceive as dangerous, even if they are actually safe.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders, affecting one in four Australians at some stage in their life. Women are more likely to develop anxiety than men. There are many forms of anxiety disorder but the one thing they have in common is their impact on everyday life.
If you are experiencing persistent or severe worry, fear or stress, and this has been leasing from longer than 6 months and is interfering with your life, you may have an anxiety disorder. Click here for a helpful anxiety test that has been developed by Beyond Blue.
Anxiety is actually a term for a group of mental health disorders. Each anxiety disorder has its own specific set of symptoms. It is possible to experience more than one type of anxiety at the same time.
Types of anxiety disorders
Generalised Anxiety Disorder: excessive worry about anything and everything, including worrying about worrying.
Social Anxiety Disorder: anxiety in social situations, often rooted in the fear of doing something wrong and being judged by others.
Panic Disorder: repeated panic attacks and worry about future panic attacks.
Agoraphobia: anxiety about having a panic attack in certain situations and not being able to escape or to get help.
Specific Phobias: intense fear of objects or situations, such as spiders.
Illness Anxiety Disorder: anxiety about ones’ own health, or the health of close people in their life
Other conditions where anxiety is present:
Obsessive compulsive disorder: Ongoing unwanted/intrusive thoughts and fears that cause anxiety and the carrying out certain behaviours or rituals.
Post-traumatic stress disorder: This can happen after a person experiences one or more traumatic events. Click here to find out more about PTSD.
What causes anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders aren’t caused by a single factor, but by a combination of things. A family history of anxiety, a person’s genetic makeup, physical health, personality traits and stressful life experiences can all contribute to the development of anxiety.
There are three broad categories of treatment for anxiety, these include:
Psychological treatments (talking therapies)
Physical treatments (medications)
Self-help and alternative therapies