understanding and managing anxiety
How can you tell if everyday stress has crossed the line into a disorder?
Take this quick, free survey to see if anxiety may be a problem for you
psychologists help with anxiety
A clinical psychologist has specialist training in helping people to understand and manage anxiety. Therapy is never a ‘one-size-fits-all’ and so, a psychologist will consider the unique factors that might be contributing to a person’s anxiety. A treatment plan is then tailored for the person and this can involve CBT, mindfulness, exposure therapy, relaxation and other helpful strategies, such as addressing any lifestyle factors which may be contributing to symptoms of anxiety. An understanding of what anxiety is the best place to start.
what is anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion and refers to feelings of nervousness, worry or sense of apprehension, often about an event where the outcome is uncertain, or where we feel we might not be able to cope. Anxiety is often experienced prior to a challenging situation, like giving a speech or doing an exam. Feelings of anxiety can also follow a stressful event, like an accident where the person is left feeling shaken. Anxiety is a reaction to real or perceived threat and danger. Once our brain becomes aware of danger, a series of changes automatically occur in the body to prepare the body to “fight” or “flee” from danger. Anxious feelings are accompanied by physical, mental and behavioural changes or ‘symptoms’ of anxiety.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Anxious thoughts or worries
- Rapid heartbeat
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of certain people or situations
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Numbness or tingling sensations
While anxiety is a natural reaction to a stressful situation and is helpful in the short-term, it is certainly not useful in the long term. For some, anxious thoughts, feelings, or physical symptoms can become severe and upsetting. When anxiety symptoms occur frequently, occur over a period of time, and interfere with daily life, then an anxiety disorder may be present. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorders diagnosed in Australia and there are a number of different types, including:
GENERALISED ANXIETY DISORDER (GAD)
GAD is characterised by persistent and excessive worry, often about daily situations like work, family or health and the worries interfere the person’s day-to-day life.
Panic Disorder is characterised by repeat panic attacks - sudden surges of overwhelming fear and physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations and breathlessness.
Agoraphobia involves intense anxiety about a variety of situations such as open spaces, crowds, or being outside of the home.
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER (OCD)
OCD includes Obsessions - persistent and distressing thoughts, images or impulses (e.g. a fear of germs), and Compulsions - repetitive behaviours rituals or mental acts (e.g. hand-washing).
SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER
Social anxiety disorder is characterised by severe anxiety about being criticised or negatively evaluated by others, often leading to the avoidance of social events.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD)
PTSD can occur after exposure to a frightening and traumatic event. Symptoms may include ‘flashbacks’, avoidance of reminders of the event, feeling numb, negative thoughts, feeling irritable, angry, and problems with sleep.
WHAT CAUSES ANXIETY DISORDERS?
There is no single known cause of anxiety disorders, but there are a number of risk factors:
- Poor physical health
- Negative thinking style
- Stressful life events
TREATMENTS THAT WORK
Anxiety is a normal “built in” and at times useful response, so you can never banish it completely from your life. However, you can learn to manage and control your anxiety more effectively. Psychological therapies are the most effective treatment option for managing anxiety and sometimes with medication if symptoms are severe.
Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. CBT is a type of therapy that helps to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours and techniques to calm the body and mind. CBT combines some of the following strategies:
When we get anxious, our rate of breathing increases, often called ‘hyperventilation’. When we over-breathe, we breathe out too much carbon dioxide and this lowers the level of carbon dioxide in the blood which causes symptoms like breathlessness and light-headedness. Slow breathing can help to manage and prevent over-breathing and other symptoms of anxiety.
Relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation, isometric muscle relaxation, guided imagery and meditation, are useful for reducing physical and mental tension.
Negative or unhelpful thinking patterns are associated with anxiety. Cognitive restructuring is a technique to help a person to identify and challenge negative thoughts and then develop more helpful and constructive ways of thinking.
Through a gradual process of exposure to real or imaged fears, a person learns to cope with these fears, and with practice, the anxious response decreases.
Structured problem solving involves identifying stressful situations or thoughts, and then developing a solution to the problem.
Making lifestyle changes can help lower stress and anxiety, including regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol and caffeine, engaging in enjoyable activities, improving time-management skills, and having adequate sleep.
If anxiety symptoms are severe, then medications are often used in conjunction with psychological therapy, prescribed by a GP or Psychiatrist.
Some types of antidepressant medication can help people to manage anxiety, even if they are not experiencing symptoms of depression.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for short term use (2-3 weeks) or to be used intermittently, to help promote relaxation and reduce tension. They aren’t recommended for long term use as they can be addictive.
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
If anxiety is affecting your work, school, home life, or relationships, you may benefit from professional help.
We especially love the following books and they are available from our office. When you read any books on the management of anxiety, remember that they are guides only.
LIVING WITH IT: A survivor’s Guide to Panic Attacks by Bev Aisbett
Having sold over 500,000 copies, this book is great for sufferers in the early stages of anxiety. Using a unique cartoon format, the book assists with the understanding of the nature of anxiety and provides the crucial first steps to regaining control and building recovery. This easy to understand guide is both reassuring and informative, whilst disarming and soothing the reader with gentle humour.
THE BOOK OF IT: Ten Steps to Overcoming Anxiety by Bev Aisbett
Provides a clear and concise overview of the methods which have consistently proven to be a turning point for sufferers of anxiety seeking the path to recovery.