Anxiety is a feeling that many of us will have experienced. It comes as a result of stress and its symptoms are the body’s normal biological reaction to stress.
The word ‘anxiety’ is derived from Latin (anxietatem – to ‘vex’ or ‘trouble’) first seen around 500 years ago. However, it is only fairly recently that the word has been used in the context of health.
Some people might describe anxiety as a feeling of nervousness. It can affect us in different ways, depending on how we are feeling and what we are doing.
Feelings of anxiety can be temporary, short-lived and mild, with a clear identifiable cause. For instance, it is normal to feel anxious before an exam, and the worry that you might fail should spur you to prepare better. So, in some cases, anxiety and worry can be a good thing.
Some people, however, experience more anxiety than others. They worry more and seem to feel nervous or stressed more often, or even all the time.
Feelings of anxiety can come about because the stresses around have increased or for various reasons, people may feel less able to cope with stress.
When the body comes under stress, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. This normal reaction stems from our ‘caveman’ days. It makes our heart beat faster and our nerves become more alert, preparing our body to fight or flee from the danger facing us. This reaction is called the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Back then, dangers were man-eating animals. Today, we get stressed because of traffic jams, deadlines at work or money worries. Nevertheless, our body’s response to stress has remained the same. Our heart pounds away and we become jumpy because of the stress chemicals released into our body.
In general, there are two groups of factors (or causes) which work together to make us feel anxious. These are the external and internal factors. How you feel depends on an interplay between these.
Stress can be both positive and negative. An example of positive stress is wondering whether you have won anything in the weekly lottery draw. However, we don’t usually say we are anxious in these situations – we describe it as being excited. So, in a way, positive stress makes us excited, negative stress makes us anxious.
Anxiety can give rise to a wide range of symptoms. These can be grouped into physical and non-physical (or psychological) symptoms. Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling our heart pounding or racing (palpitations)
- Feeling tense in our body and muscles (headaches, neck & shoulder pain)
- Increased rate of breathing (short and sharp breathing) or hyperventilation
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling nauseous, sick or faint
When stress becomes long-standing, physical symptoms of anxiety fade away or become less prominent. However, these are replaced by a variety of psychological symptoms of anxiety, including:
- Negative thoughts
- Feeling that you may become seriously ill
- Feelings of low mood or depression
- Thinking that you are losing control
- Loss of confidence
- Difficulty sleeping
Treatments available for anxiety overlap considerably with those used to treat stress. The main forms of treatment include:
- Avoid artificial stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and
nicotine, which trigger adrenaline release and use up stressfighting
- Avoid refined sugar, which causes blood sugar levels to
spike and dip, and also depletes magnesium.
- Relaxation techniques – these include techniques such as yoga and meditation, or sessions involving massage or hypnotherapy. However, even simple breathing exercises , such as taking five minutes a day to close your eyes and breathe deeply may help relieve your symptoms
- Moderate exercise will improve oxygenation of tissues and
release endorphins, the “happy” chemicals that improve
your mood. For example, gentle walking releases muscle
tension and clears the mind… unless you do it in a bustling
downtown or on a divided highway.
- Talking to friends should help to put things into perspective.
See your doctor if:
- You feel like you're worrying too much and it's interfering with your work, relationships or other parts of your life
- Your fear, worry or anxiety is upsetting to you
- You feel depressed, have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns along with anxiety
- You think your anxiety could be linked to a physical health problem
- You have suicidal thoughts or behaviors — seek emergency treatment immediately