Anxiety is a type of fear usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, but can also arise from something happening right now.
Around 1 in 6 people in Ireland will experience a mental health problem like anxiety each year, which has steadily increased over the past 20 years. It is also likely that individuals do not seek help for significant levels of anxiety, meaning many remain without diagnosis or treatment.
Signs and symptoms
Life is full of potential stressful events and it is normal to feel anxious about everyday things. There can be a single trigger or event that raises anxiety levels, but generally it’s be a number of things that increase anxiety levels, including exams, work deadlines, how we think we look, going on a first date or whether we feel safe travelling home late at night.
Anxiety has a strong effect on us because it’s one of our natural survival responses. It causes our mind and body to speed up to prepare us to respond to an emergency.
These are some of the physical things that might happen:
- Rapid and / or irregular heartbeat
- Fast breathing
- Weakened / tense muscles
- Churning stomach / loose bowels
- Dry mouth
Anxiety also has a psychological impact, which can include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of concentration
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling depressed
- Loss of self-confidence
It can be hard to break this cycle, but you can learn to feel less worried and to cope with your anxiety so it doesn’t stop you enjoying life.
Cause of anxiety
Feelings of anxiety can be caused by lots of things and vary according to what you’re worried about and how you act when you feel apprehensive. They depend on lots of things such as:
- your genes
- how you were brought up
- what’s happened to you in your life
- the way you learn and cope with things.
Just knowing what makes you anxious and why can be the first steps to managing anxiety.
Getting help for anxiety
Fear and anxiety can affect all of us every now and then. Most people get through passing moments of anxiety with no lasting effect. People experiencing anxiety in their everyday lives often find the personal resources to cope through simple remedies.
Talking it through
Although it can be difficult to open up about feeling anxious, it can be helpful to talk to friends, family or someone who has had a similar experience. Although you might feel embarrassed or afraid to discuss your feelings with others, sharing can be a way to cope with a problem and being listened to can help you feel supported.
Face your fear
By breaking the cycle of constantly avoiding situations that make you anxious, you are less likely to stop doing the things you want, or need, to do. The chances are the reality of the situation won’t be as bad as you expect, making you better equipped to manage, and reduce, your anxiety.
Make a note of when you feel anxious, what happens and the potential triggers. By acknowledging these and arming yourself with tips to deal with these triggers, you will be better prepared in anxiety-inducing situations.
Relax: Learning relaxation techniques can help you calm feelings of anxiety. Practices like yoga, meditation or massage will relax your breathing and help you manage the way you feel about stressful experiences.
Even small increases in physical activity levels can trigger brain chemicals that improve your mood, wellbeing and stress levels. This can act as a prevention and treatment for anxiety as well as lead to improved body-image, self-esteem and self-worth.
Eat lots of fruit and vegetables and try to avoid too much sugar. Very sweet foods cause an initial sugar ‘rush,’ followed by a sharp dip in blood sugar levels which can give you anxious feelings. Caffeine can also increase anxiety levels so try to avoid drinking too much tea or coffee too.
Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation
It’s very common for people to drink alcohol when they feel nervous to numb their anxiety, however the effect that alcohol has on how you feel is only temporary. When it wears off you feel worse, potentially more anxious, and your brain will be less able to deal with anxiety naturally.
Faith / spirituality
If you are religious or spiritual, it can help you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. It can provide a way of coping with everyday stress. Church and other faith groups can be a valuable support network.
Talking to someone
If you feel anxious all the time, for several weeks or if it feels like your anxiety is taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to ask for help.
Talking therapies like counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are very effective for people with anxiety problems, CBT helps people to understand the link between negative thoughts and mood and how altering their behaviour can enable them to manage anxiety and feel in control.
Mindfulness is a variation of CBT focusing on changing the relationship between the individual and their thoughts. Using meditation can help people be ‘mindful’ of their thoughts and break out a pattern of negative thinking.
Guided self-help is usually based on CBT methods and aims to help the person understand the nature of their anxiety and equip them with the necessary skills to cope with it. This works by educating the individual to challenge unhelpful thinking, evaluate their symptoms and gradually expose themselves to the source of their anxiety.
Medication is used to provide short-term help, rather than as a cure for anxiety problems. Drugs may be most useful when they are combined with other treatments or support, such as talking therapies.
Support groups are designed for individuals to learn a lot about managing anxiety from asking other people who have experienced it. Local support or self-help groups bring together people with similar experiences to share stories, tips and try out new ways of managing their worries. Your doctor, library or local HSE office will have details of support groups near you.