The medical definition of anxiety is “a feeling of apprehension and fear, characterised by physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweating, and feelings of stress”. Anxiety is a normal emotion. We actually need to feel anxious at certain times as it is our body’s way of telling us there may be danger and to prepare us to get us away from that perceived danger (called the ‘fight or flight’ response). This type of anxiety feels unpleasant but it can actually be of benefit – it can motivate you to do better or work harder or provide you with a boost to accomplish a challenge that is ahead of you. Anxiety is a natural response to stress where you feel under pressure such as what might happen on the first day of school or when preparing for a job interview. Normal anxiety usually passes once the stressful situation is over or the stressor is removed.
However when anxiety levels remain constant and anxiety begins to interfere with our normal lives or the quality of our lives, that is when anxiety may begin to be a medical problem that needs to be treated. It is not normal to have a feeling of panic that is difficult to control or lasts a long time, or is out of proportion to the perceived danger. If you feel anxious constantly, are starting to avoid places or situations to avoid the anxious feelings, the anxious feeling is extreme, is stopping you from doing the things that you enjoy or the anxiety has lasted over 6 months, it is time to seek medical help.
Anxiety symptoms can vary in people. It can cause sweating, rapid breathing, trembling and increase the heart rate. You may feel tense, nervous or restless, have obsessive thoughts or catastrophise. You may feel a sense of panic, doom or impending danger. Insomnia and gastrointestinal issues may occur, and you may have difficulty thinking or concentrating, or concentrate solely on the the worry that is troubling you.
It is not well understood why some people experience anxiety, however it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. You may have other family members who experience anxiety or it may be caused by an underlying health issue (e.g. thyroid problems, chronic pain, heart disease). Life experiences, in particular, traumatic events such as the loss of a loved one, pregnancy, work stress or a change in living arrangements can contribute. Risk factors for anxiety include stress buildup, other mental health disorders and drug or alcohol abuse.
Untreated anxiety can lead to depression, insomnia, social isolation, poor functioning at school or work, poor quality of life, headaches, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, substance abuse and even suicide. It is easier to treat if you seek help early, and often medical treatment is not necessary, as lifestyle changes can be enough. Getting enough sleep, regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, stopping smoking and avoiding drugs or alcohol can significantly improve anxiety. Learning to meditate, doing activities you enjoy, engaging in social activities and nurturing your caring relationships will also be of great benefit to your emotional wellbeing.
Anxiety can be treated with psychotherapy, where people are taught strategies to cope with anxiety when it occurs. Where medication is required, antidepressants and/or sedatives may be used. These work by balancing the brain chemistry to help prevent anxious episodes and to try to lessen more severe symptoms.
Anxiety may never go away entirely but it is a condition that people can learn to manage, and live a fulfilling, happy and healthy life.
This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked materials, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
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