We all feel anxious at times. It can even help our performance in certain situations. The challenges of modern life, social media and even what we eat have been associated with increased feelings of anxiety. So when is feeling anxious part of the normal ups and downs of everyday living and when is it a health issue?
Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. It’s the most common mental health condition in Australia and affects both adults and children. A quarter of us will experience debilitating anxiety in our lifetime that may affect our ability to work, study and enjoy daily activities. People with anxiety also commonly have depression.
Right now it’s estimated more than 2.7 million Australians are experiencing significant anxiety. While it’s a worrying statistic, the good news is that if you are one of the people experiencing anxiety, the sooner you seek support, the more likely you are to improve.
Psychologist Alison Hicks, who practises at Campaspe Family Practice, says individuals experience anxiety differently. ‘You can be socially anxious; embarrassed in social situations and find it hard to speak up or to be in public places. This is difficult because as human beings, we need to connect. Someone else might be anxious about their health, constantly Googling symptoms and in constant fear of having a serious illness.’
‘Other people might experience Generalised Anxiety where they are constantly worried about a range of things. Managing anxiety can be difficult. The more you try to avoid uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and sensations, you run the risk of increasing symptoms in the long term. Gradually learning to face things that are uncomfortable is an important part of anxiety treatment. The more you avoid, the smaller your world gets.’
What’s normal and what’s not?
You may have experienced anxiety before an important exam, or fear when alone at night in an unfamiliar area. These are normal human emotions that can be useful, making you more alert or careful in particular situations. They’re part of an evolutionary defence mechanism called the fight-or-flight response. The feelings usually pass quickly once the stressful situation has passed or the ‘stressor’ has been removed.
Anxiety becomes a health issue when these feelings don’t go away, when you feel anxious without a particular cause or reason. These feelings can seem uncontrollable and you may feel overwhelmed by them.
To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, thoughts, behaviours and emotions must cause significant distress and have a disabling impact on your life. It’s common to have symptoms of more than one kind of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders include:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Some medical conditions share symptoms with anxiety, for example hyperthyroidism, anaemia and tachycardia. A panic attack may also mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. Experiencing a panic attack can be very frightening. If it is your first, you may end up in a hospital Emergency Department thinking there is something more serious wrong.
Anxiety can affect your everyday health and wellbeing by affecting your immune system, stopping you from sleeping properly, increasing your blood pressure, contributing to digestive issues, and causing dizziness, headaches and fatigue.
Your GP can diagnose whether you are experiencing anxiety or a medical condition with similar symptoms. Your GP can refer you, if necessary, for appropriate treatment and support. If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you will be eligible for a Mental Health Plan. This entitles you to 10 sessions under Medicare in a calendar year. These sessions are not free, but Medicare provides a rebate to help with the cost of therapy. Mental health support service Beyond Blue has a confidential anxiety checklist you can fill out online and take to your doctor.
Will I need medication?
Some people may choose to take medication if their symptoms are severe and debilitating. People experiencing severe anxiety symptoms should see their GP. Alison recommends people also see a therapist before considering medication for an anxiety disorder, ‘Given that anxiety has a strong avoidant component, taking medication to “get rid” of symptoms may play into avoidance. And while it may work in the short term, in the longer term the underlying issue remains the same.’
Living with anxiety is an individual experience. Getting back to participating in your community in meaningful ways involves your personal goals and values. According to Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria (ARCVic): ‘Recovery is less about cure and more about living a satisfying life.’
Someone I care about has anxiety, how can I help?
If you know someone who has anxiety, acknowledge their difficulties. Help them to engage in activities that are aligned with their values rather than focussing on getting rid of the anxiety. Encourage them to seek help.
What to look out for
Symptoms of anxiety may include:
physical sensations: increased heart rate or feeling shaky
worry: uncontrollable thoughts about possible dangers or threats
avoidance behaviours: ceasing activities that cause anxiety
Caring for anxious kids
Did you know Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria (ARCVic) holds regular workshops and seminars?
A ‘Parenting Anxious Children’ seminar to help families empower children to handle their worries is being held in Melbourne in March and May.
Learning to live with anxiety
Psychologist Alison Hicks shares her top tips for living with anxiety
There are things you can do to reduce your anxiety, but it doesn’t just go away. It’s not about getting rid of it, it’s about making space for anxiety, and then it starts to change on its own. When we try to fight it, we tend to get stuck in it. That’s why it’s helpful to have therapy to help you learn to make room for anxious symptoms.
Find a therapist you feel is a good fit for you or one that provides a therapy that aligns with your way of thinking. If you don’t connect with the first person you see, find someone you do connect with. Therapy is a very personal experience.
Some available therapies include:
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
Internal Family Systems
Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Tips to reduce anxiety
Do yoga, Tai Chi, meditation or Qigong regularly as a way to practise mindfulness.
Start exercising. This will release endorphins, the chemicals in your body that make you feel good.
Eat a healthy balanced diet. Science has shown gut health is linked to mental health.
Ensure you have adequate sleep. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time. Put all screen activities away one hour before bed. Develop a routine before you go to sleep; perhaps try some relaxation music or abdominal breathing once you get into bed.
What’s the difference between Mindfulness and Relaxation?
People often get confused between Mindfulness and Relaxation. When they don’t become relaxed with Mindfulness they think it hasn’t worked. Mindfulness may at times result in feeling calm, but that is not the intention. The intention is to train you to be with your emotional and physical experience whether it is pleasant or not. Relaxation, on the other hand, is designed to help you relax.
You can find clips on YouTube to help practise relaxation, meditation, mindfulness and yoga at home. It’s good to go to programs where you can be guided, particularly when starting out.
Apps you might find helpful:
There are also online CBT programs. The Centre for Clinical Interventions has information sheets and workbooks for understanding and working with your anxiety. These can be used in conjunction with therapy or as extra support outside of sessions.
If you try any of the above strategies and still can’t find relief from your symptoms, see your GP or a psychologist.
Psychology: Alison Hicks & Melas Khole, Campaspe FP: 0425 240 021
Gut health: Dietician Kelly Conte, Campaspe FP: 5422 2877
Cobaw Community Health Service provides low-cost counselling services for adults and children with anxiety: 1300 026 229
Yoga: Illuminate Yoga Studio, 59 Mollison St, Kyneton: 0438 010 199
Tai Chi: Lilac Moon, Patricia: 0407 554 173