We all experience some anxiety in our lives, for example when faced with stressful situations, like just before a sporting match, an exam or a presentation (just the thought of standing up in front of a group of people may trigger some anxiety for you). This is normal (in certain contexts and in small doses) and, when looked at and managed healthily, can help us perform better by getting us alert and motivated (g-ing us up!!). But people with an anxiety disorder find that their anxiety gets in the way of their daily life and stops them from achieving their full potential – anxiety can be extremely scary!
Many people experiencing the symptoms of anxiety can begin to wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong with them; they can start to think that they are flawed or a deficient human being (these self-critical thoughts tend to reinforce the anxiety and make it even stronger). One common fear is that they might be going crazy; some people can even think that they might be dying. Many people also feel that they are alone in their struggles with anxiety, but the reality is that a lot of people experience anxiety either from time to time or on a more regular basis. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in four people – one in three women and one in five men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. Over any given year, over two million Australians experience significant anxiety. Anxiety can affect any kind of person at any stage of their life, whether they are an introvert or an extrovert, outgoing or shy, young or older, male or female, wealthy or poor. Whatever your walk of life, you can become anxious. That means that any person you know can also become anxious. With these things in mind, please remember that, if you are experiencing anxiety you are certainly not alone.
Being afraid is part of being human. Fear occurs in response to real danger, has been around since the beginning of time and is very important from a survival perspective. For example, if a blood-hungry lion confronted us we would likely respond with fear. This response is important because it initiates a whole series of physical and behavioural changes that serve to protect us. When confronted by an animal such as a lion, the feeling of fear would probably lead us to either run for our lives or ‘step-up’ and fight for our lives. This is referred to as the flight, fight or flee response. If we didn’t respond with fear, we’d be far too careless and likely end up on a dinner plate.
The experience of anxiety is very similar to the experience of fear – the main difference is that anxiety typically occurs when there is no real danger, but rather, perceived danger. The individual may think that they are in danger, but the reality is that they are not. Think of the anxiety someone might feel when they are preparing to stand up in front of a group of people to deliver a speech or presentation. The individual may feel anxious because they start to think that they will forget what they want to say, that people will start to judge them and potentially laugh at them, that people will think that they are stupid. The individual may feel anxious because they perceive some potential danger; in this case, it could be a threat to their ego or their desire to be liked by everyone. This may not mean that there is any real danger, but what causes the experience of anxiety is that the person believes that they are in danger. The experience of anxiety and fear are very similar, the difference being is that with anxiety there may not be any actual danger – the person just thinks there is, and they start to worry, and worry, and worry…
Dr Stewart Hase summarises what anxiety is nicely:
Dr Stewart Hase: AHPRA Registered Psychologist
Doctor of Philosophy, MA Psychology (Hons), Dip Psychology, BA Psychology & Education, Associate Diploma Nursing Education
Stress and anxiety are like chocolate and ice-cream. They have similarities: they are both confectionaries and contain sugar, for example. But they are also different. Anxiety is a similar physical response to stress in that when we are anxious, the heart races, we breathe more rapidly, our senses become more acute, blood pressure goes up, and we are alert. The real difference is in the way it is caused. Anxiety is caused by a ‘perceived’ threat. This might be speaking in public, getting in a lift and fearing getting trapped, aggressive people, worrying about the exams next week or fearing what might happen to the children when they go off to school. Prolonged anxiety can also be a mental illness caused by a mixture of genes and experience. As a mental illness it can come in many forms such as phobias and panic disorder, for example. Anxiety is treatable with medication and/ or with psychological therapy.
The symptoms of anxiety are sometimes not so obvious as they can creep up on us over time. Also, given that we all experience some anxiety at different stages in our lives, it can be tough to know how much anxiety is too much or problematic.
‘Normal’ or everyday anxiety tends to be limited in duration and frequency, and connected with some stressful situation or event, such as an exam, big sporting event or job interview. The type of anxiety experienced by people with an anxiety disorder is more frequent, not always connected to an obvious stressful situation or life challenge, and impacts on their day-to-day life – with friends, family, work or school. While each anxiety condition (and there are many, some of which we have listed below) has its own unique characteristics, there are some common symptoms including:
Panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound up and edgy
Excessive fear, worry, catastrophizing (mountain out of a molehill), or obsessive thinking (ruminating over the same thing again, and again, and again)
Avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious which can impact on study, work or social life, substance misuse/ abuse.
Keep in mind that some people may not fit these exact symptoms, and this list isn’t designed to diagnose you. You can use the symptom list above as a guide to determine if anxiety might be something that is causing challenges in your life and requires some work, but only a doctor (preferably a doctor with a strong mental health background – e.g., a psychiatrist) can give you a proper diagnosis.
An anxiety disorder occurs when anxiety starts to impact a person’s life and prevents them from engaging with friends, family, work or school.
Not all anxiety fits into a single category, and some people may experience a combination of different types. Some common types of anxiety disorders include:
Some of the most common factors that contribute to anxiety:
Physical health — Some chronic physical conditions – such as asthma, food allergies, epilepsy, diabetes or heart conditions – may contribute to anxiety symptoms or affect treatment of anxiety. Having anxiety could also affect treatment for those physical health conditions.
Some physical conditions can mimic anxiety symptoms, so it can be useful to see a doctor to determine whether there is an underlying medical cause for your anxiety.
Substance use — certain substances, including alcohol, cannabis, ice, cocaine and even caffeine in high doses, can elicit the physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as increased breathing and heart rate.
Other mental health conditions — Some people experience an anxiety disorder on its own, but it’s also common for an anxiety condition to occur together with other mental health conditions. Depression and anxiety often occur together. It’s important to get treatment for everything that’s going on for you.
Avoidance behaviours — certain behaviours perpetuate anxiety and prevent people from finding healthy ways to cope with their fears and anxiety. Avoidance as a coping strategy serves to reinforce the unhealthy thinking that contributes to the anxiety disorder.
It’s totally normal to feel anxious and stressed from time to time, but there are lots of things you can do to feel better and not allow stress and anxiety to drag on, and on, and on.
Remember, there’s a difference between feeling stressed every now and then, and experiencing ongoing stress, anxiety or an anxiety disorder. If the stress and/ or anxiety you are experiencing is starting to take a toll and you’re looking for ways to deal with it, consider talking to a mental health professional – we chat more about seeking professional help below.
What is stress? Most people can describe feeling stressed at some time or another. However, interestingly there is no universal definition of stress. A simple way of explaining stress is that it involves being placed under some kind of pressure (real or perceived) and believing that we do not have sufficient resources (either internal, external or a combination of both) to cope. In other words, we think that the demands of the situation outweigh our abilities to manage the situation. Generally, the stressor (the thing that has caused our stress) is something that is seemingly thrown on us, such as having to meet a deadline, or receiving an unexpected bill, or difficulties in a relationship at work, school or home. Stress can be short-term (e.g., meeting a deadline) or long-term (e.g., living with chronic pain).
Dr Stewart Hase explains what stress is further: Stress is the body’s way of getting ready for action. It increases the heart rate, breathing and blood pressure to make sure blood gets to the brain and the muscles. Our pupils dilate but parts of our body shut down because blood is needed elsewhere. It is a healthy reaction-in the right dose. One way of thinking about stress is that it is like a balloon. You can blow a balloon up so that it is at just the right pressure for batting around or hanging off objects at a party. If there is not enough air in the balloon it will not be easy to bat around or use at all. If there is too much air in the balloon then it will be too tight, too hard and will be at risk of bursting-too much pressure. We need a certain amount of stress to function at our best and too little means we are not motivated. A bit of tension in the muscles, the right heart and breathing rates, and the right blood pressure means we are ready for action as the right amount of blood circulates to our muscles and our brain. But, if there is too much stress in the body then we feel overwhelmed, can’t think or concentrate, get tired easily, can’t sleep and just don’t feel as if we can do what we need to do. So, there is ‘eustress’ or good stress, which is the right amount. Then there is ‘distress’ or too much stress and we cannot function properly.
One of the top ways to deal with stress is to learn about it and change the way you think about it.
It might be hard to think positively about stress when most headlines focus on the negative effects stress can have on our health and wellbeing, but it is important to be aware that not ALL stress is bad.
If you understand and believe that stress can be your friend, not always your enemy, it may not have a negative effect on you at all.
For a lot of people, the moment they feel the slightest bit of stress it can feel like their whole world is caving in, that bad things will happen – they end up getting stressed about stress. BUT the right amount of stress has benefits and can give you the motivation to get stuff done… like studying for that upcoming exam, rehearsing for a work presentation, or even training for an important sporting match. Without any stress whatsoever, the motivation to act, to get off your butt and do things can be very limited. The important thing is to recognise when stress has moved into the not-very-motivating or unhelpful zone.
When stress might be approaching not-very-motivating or helpful:
When it might be helpful to speak with someone like a psychologist, guidance counsellor at your school or another mental health professional.
Tips to help you keep stress working as your friend:
Not all stress is bad for you.
Stress can be your friend.
Stress can be motivating.
Check out some of LIVIN’s Tips and Tricks here to help you manage your levels of stress and anxiety better.
If you think you’re experiencing an anxiety disorder, visit your doctor/ GP or mental health professional. There are treatments available and your doctor/ GP or mental health professional can work with you to figure out a plan that suits you.
Again, check out some of LIVIN’s Tips and Tricks here to help you manage yourself better if you aren’t ready to see a doctor/ GP or mental health professional.
Remember that everyone responds differently to treatments and strategies, so figuring out what works for you might take some time. It’s important to keep at it until you find the right fit.
1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness each year. Many suffer in silence due to the stigma and lack of education around mental health. LIVIN is helping change this. Each flag represents where we have delivered our LIVINWell In School program. Help us fill the map and spread the word that “It ain’t weak to speak”.