It’s that pit in your stomach, the butterflies whizzing around, the little gremlin in the back of your mind whispering negative thoughts, the flush face of panic from the simplest occurrences of your day. These are just some of the short answers to the question, What is anxiety?
However it is not the most detailed, or useful, so I shall try to explain further both into what it feels like to have anxiety, and what the science is behind it. Unfortunately anxiety is an enemy for most disorder sufferers, and knowing thy enemy is very important to overcoming it.
How Do We Get Anxiety?
Anxiety can form in anyone and at any stage of life, and for almost any reason. For most people, anxiety (and related disorders) develops as a result of a great amount of stress. This could be from a specific event in a persons life, such as the loss of someone close, or can develop from consistent levels of stress.
Whilst the loss of someone close could mean death, it could also mean that you just don’t have the same support system(s) that you once did. It is also important to mention that the ‘specific event’ doesn’t even have to be something so extreme, as it can be very unexpected events that hit the tipping point to develop an anxiety disorder.
As mentioned, consistent levels of stress over a period of time can be a significant contributing factor to developing a disorder too. Stress levels might not be from any significant life problems, as it could in fact be someone’s personality that contributes to generating unnecessary stress levels. An example of this is someone that is quite ‘particular’ in something like order, tidiness, etc to near obsessive levels – and too much concious concentration into these things can be a building block to developing disorders such as obsessive compulsive, anxiety, depression, and similar disorders.
There are other reasons why anxiety can develop, and these include physical conditions such as thyroid problems, childhood development can be a large contributing factor, genetics, and biochemical imbalances are all additional possibilities.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety has a wide range of symptoms, which include both psychological and physical. Unfortunately anxiety can literally invent worrying symptoms that match with significant health problems, but the actual fact is that anxiety can be that powerful to make you think these symptoms are real when they are not.
Here’s some common and maybe not so common symptoms:
- Insomnia, difficulty getting to, staying, waking from sleep
- Lack of energy
- Being easily irritable
- Difficulty relaxing the mind and/or the body
- Emotional spikes, particularly tears or anger
- Often on high alert
- More worry from crowds, being in public, or being alone
- Strong heartbeat
- Stomach pains
- Butterflies in your stomach
- Palpitations, irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pains, and other irregularities in chest
- Significant changes in loss or gain of appetite
What Anxiety Feels Like
Whilst there are symptoms of anxiety which are quite generalised, I think its important to describe some more specific feelings and situations that are brought on as a result of anxiety.
This may be useful to some to be able to match with their own experiences:
Situation: someone is walking behind me in the street
Feeling: worry and instant high alert that they are behind me, why are they behind me? I need to walk faster, worry turns into panic and the feelings of chest flutter starts
Situation: in the bath or shower, feeling overwhelmingly hot
Feeling: difficulty to breathe, heart begins to race, feeling light headed
Situation: Walking alongside a road, lots of cars going by, and people walking on the street
Feeling: an overwhelming awareness of each car and the people that are in it, along with the people on the street makes lots of eyes and paranoia that they are all observing you, which can result in worry and panic
Should I Worry About Anxiety?
Excuse the subheading pun.
Anxiety is really quite common, as 1 in 10 people are likely to have a disabling anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. So you should try to not be overly concerned about the fact that “this card was dealt to you”, because acceptance is very important. Anxiety brings on worry, and what’s done is done, the only thing one can do to improve their life living with anxiety is to work towards removing stress from life, improving health through diet and exercise, etc.
Whilst its important to accept anxiety, we have to do so with an aim of improving life quality. If we accept it in the sense that we let it run our life, then this can have problems for your health in the long term. Prolonged anxiety and stress levels in the long term can develop actual health problems such as high blood pressure, weaker immune systems, and similar.
What Can I Do About Anxiety?
Whilst one method might not work as well as it might for another, there are usual steps to begin improving your stress levels, which in turn will help reduce anxiety.
Improve Your Diet
Yes you’ve very likely read this before, its the usual recommendation for lots of problems, but its truth. Your body and your mind is made up of what nutrients are given to it, first it was your mother providing nutrients but when you are of appropriate age to feed yourself then it is your own decisions.
Some really simple guidelines are eat high quality (such as whole/free range/organic etc) foods which are not processed with unnecessary saturated fats, salt, or other strange chemicals. If it comes in a packet, be wary.
Eat greens, and fruit to a limit, which are high in fibre.
Try to eat protein and fibre with every meal (e.g. chicken & sprouts = high protein and fibre)
Getting the right amount of physical activity helps your body to release chemicals which when are in an imbalance can contribute to negative mental thoughts and stress. Using your body tires it out, your minds focus goes into repairing your body, instead of focusing on the “ifs” “buts” and “coconuts”.
Remove the negatives
Sometimes we need to take a look at our life, and whilst remembering not to over think and worry about it, and simply identifying what factors are negative to your well-being. For example, you may not have the career you wish you had and this could be a negative factor if it is often on your thoughts.
First thing to know is that its OK to not be ‘where you want to be’ as you should accept where you are and start thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. Nothing will change overnight, and having a goal is good for life energy but it can also be detrimental to be entirely thinking about it as this only leads to more stress, and more anxiety.
What small step can you make today towards your end goal? Believe in yourself to go and do it, and you have made a success of your day.
It has been done since the start of history as we know it, some of the greatest figures of our existence are such because of their journalling of their experiences.
It turns out that journalling can have significant benefits to your mental state. Being able to get out your feelings and on paper is a great start.
Furthermore journalling can assist you in understanding what factors in your daily life may affect your well-being. For example if you were to journal today and gave a grading of certain successes of the day like so:
Saturday – Diet: 5/10 Exercise: 8/10 Productivity: 8/10 Feeling: OK
Then lets take a look at Sunday:
Sunday – Diet: 7/10 Exercise: 8/10 Productivity: 8/10 Feeling: A bit tired, appetite for bad foods
Its true that what we do on the Saturday in this example has a direct effect on the Sunday. A bad diet one day can mean negative elements for the following day, and the same for any other element.
Journalling simply like this can help us identify patterns in our levels of stress and anxiety, and other factors. We can also add other important things to monitor like sleep duration/quality, social activities, hobby/entertainment (important not to binge, though).
It is no shame to consider therapy of any kind, you wouldn’t for any physical condition and so you should know that mental conditions shouldn’t be any different – don’t let the stigma impede your own judgement on improving your well-being.
I hope that this article has been of some use in understanding anxiety from my point of view, there is lots of things likely missing from this article that is worth digging further into. Below is a few resources I think are useful to learning more about the disorder.
- Anxiety Information by AnxietyUK
- Why do I feel anxious and panicky? by NHS
- How to keep a thought diary to combat anxiety by PsychologyToday
- Food and Anxiety by AnxietyNoMore.co.uk
These are some podcasts I frequently listen to and offer great help in techniques and understanding.
Here are some great apps to use for managing anxiety.
Finding places where you can open up to others who are/have gone through similar experiences can be a huge help.
I personally found this website to have an incredible community during my early days of understanding the disorder.
A refreshing place to just talk to someone who cares, about anything. Sometimes an entirely non-involved perspective is a great help.