This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week with a special focus on anxiety. A recent survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) charity has revealed that “anxiety affects around 1 in 4 people in the UK, but what is more shocking is the level of under diagnosis and the public’s lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding this topic. With the student demographic being one of the most susceptible groups to experience anxiety and with pressures of exams adding to this, it seems fitting to put anxiety under the microscope and discover more about it”. I have decided to do a bit of research to find out about the common causes of anxiety and to look at ways in which we can take a proactive approach for managing our levels of anxiety in our daily lives. Why do we Homo sapiens experience anxiety? Could anxiety have some positive connotations? It’s been my mission to find out.
Although anxiety can act as a destructive element in our daily lives and can have severe and debilitating effects on a person’s life, a little bit of anxiety can actually have positive effects in our day-to-day lives.
“Humans have evolved to experience anxiety as a survival mechanism”
Provided you’re human, you are guaranteed to experience some form of anxiety at some stage in your life. But don’t despair; anxiety is a perfectly natural part of human nature and in small doses it acts as a motivating force forming part of your body’s natural survival mechanism. It has been suggested by evolutionary anthropologists (Baumeister 1990) that ‘anxiety is a species-typical adaptation that helps to prevent social exclusion’ with healthy levels of anxiety serving as a form of self-preservation and protection. Your body responds to feelings of anxiety by entering into the ‘fight or flight mode’ making you become more alert and prepared to tackle any source of danger or threat to either yourself or others in your immediate vicinity.
To put it another way, humans have evolved with the ability to feel anxious as it is a necessary emotion required for everyday life! Without anxiety, we wouldn’t survive as it forms part of our judgment rationale. For instance, before we cross a road we may experience low levels of anxiety which act to make us cautious as we assess whether we can cross the road safely. Under healthy levels of anxiety we will cross the road safely after we have judged the imminent threat to our survival (in this situation it might be a high speed car) to have passed. Here anxiety impacts our lives in a positive way. When our anxiety levels reach such a height that we are completely consumed by the feeling and to go back to our road analogy, we do not cross the road as we are too fearful, this is where anxiety can have a debilitating effect on our lives and prevent us from carrying out routine tasks.
Types of anxiety
Most of us will be subject to transient feelings of anxiety throughout our lifetimes without experiencing any adverse or long-lasting effects. However, for those whose levels of anxiety are heighten and continuous, this then becomes what is known as chronic anxiety, and can have a drastic impact on a person’s life and relationships.
The ability to recognise the different variants of anxiety and to understand how they can affect our lifestyles is essential in enabling us to develop effective coping strategies, to help abate high levels of anxiety.
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD): This is the most commonly diagnosed form of anxiety, usually affecting young adults and students. People diagnosed with GAD often experience significantly higher levels of anxiety which can prevent them from pursuing certain aspects of their lives.
- Panic: This is an extreme response of your body to fear, stress and even excitement, where you bypass the anxious state and can lose the ability to think rationally. Physical symptoms of panic can include: feeling hot, excessive sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing, palpitations, and irrational thoughts, trembling of hands or feet and chest pains.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD): This is often characterised by the presence of unwanted obsessive or intrusive thoughts which lead to compulsive behaviour. This results in the individual carrying out repetitive behaviour.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This is a response of the body in an attempt to deal with traumatic or distressing events experienced by the individual. Flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares are common experiences felt by people diagnosed with PTSD.
- Phobias: These are extreme or irrational fears that we may experience in certain situations, when we are in a particular place or encounter objects or animals that represent fear or danger to ourselves.
Common causes of anxiety
Although as humans we are programmed to experience anxiety, certain situations can trigger bouts of anxious thoughts and feelings on a regular basis. The amount to which anxiety will affect you is dependent upon a number of factors such as your genetic make-up, the way you were brought up, certain life events and your general personality. Some people are more susceptible than others, but everyone deals with anxiety during their life (even if they don’t admit it).
Below is a list of the most common triggers and causes of anxiety according to a recent survey carried out by the MHF.
- Financial troubles: 45% of those surveyed revealed that money-related issues acted as a significant contributor to their general state of anxiety.
- Work and academic pressures: 27% stated that problems at work caused increases in their anxiety levels, with 17% disclosing that the fear of unemployment was an additional aspect which added further to their anxiety.
- Family, partners and friends: The cliché of ‘Family: can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ really does hold true here. The survey reported that 26% attributed feelings of anxiety to problems arising between family and loved ones, with students and young adults being affected the most.
- Ageing and loneliness: Another significant cause of anxiety that was highlighted by the survey was the fear of losing someone close and growing old alone.
Recognising when you’re anxious
Anxiety has both physical and psychological effects on your body.
The physical symptoms that you might experience are:
- Increased heartrate
- Rapid breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Intense feeling of nausea
- Constantly needing the loo
- Feeling faint or dizzy
Psychological effects might include:
- Constant feeling of worry or dread
- Difficulty sleeping
- Reduced concentration
- Lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem
Breaking this cycle of thoughts is tough, but there are ways and means to manage your anxiety and to help prevent it from taking over your life.
Managing your anxiety
- Talk to someone: Talking to someone you trust can help make you feel supported.
- Face your fear: Although it’s tempting to avoid doing things that make you feel anxious, by facing up to your fears you can help break down this constant cycle of avoidance, making you more likely to be able to do the things that you want.
- Relax: Take time to do things which make you feel more relaxed. This could be having a bath, reading a book or learning relaxation techniques such as yoga or mindfulness meditation. The University’s counselling service has some excellent on-line resources where you can access some relaxation audio downloads.
- Exercise: Getting some fresh air and gentle exercise can really help to clear your head of unwanted thoughts, leaving you refreshed and revitalised. Exercise also causes the release of endorphins (the happy hormone) helping to promote and improve your mood and general well-being.
- Eat Well: Eating healthy food not only nourishes your body but also nourishes your mind. Eating junk food can often leave you feeling lethargic and sluggish, leading to your mood dropping. Aim to get your 5-a-day to give your mood a boost.
You may find that you need a more guided form of help, as well as undertaking some of the suggestions above, a good place to start is with your GP. There are a variety of treatments available offering a more guided approach to help manage anxiety:
- Talking Therapies: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and counselling can offer an effective treatment for anxiety, with CBT acting as a tool to helping you to understand the link between negative thoughts and low mood.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness practice gets you to focus your awareness on the present rather than ruminating about the past or future, and according to the latest research can lead to a 20% decrease in anxiety levels.