Understanding your anxiety
According to its medical definition, anxiety is a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms that are brought about by a sense of apprehension at a perceived threat. These symptoms vary greatly according to the nature and magnitude of the perceived threat, and from one person to another.
Symptoms of anxiety
Psychological symptoms may include feelings of fear, an exaggerated startle reflex or alarm reaction, poor concentration, irritability, and insomnia. In mild anxiety, physical symptoms arise from the body’s so-called fight-or-flight response, a state of high arousal that results from a surge of adrenaline. These physical symptoms include tremor, sweating, muscle tension, a fast heartbeat, and fast breathing. Sometimes people can also develop a dry mouth and the irritating feeling of having a lump in the throat. In severe anxiety, hyperventilation or over-breathing can lead to a fall in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. This gives rise to an additional set of physical symptoms including chest discomfort, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, dizziness, and faintness.
In an anxiety disorder, exposure to the feared object or situation can trigger an intense attack of anxiety called a panic attack. During a panic attack, symptoms are so severe that the person begins to fear that she is suffocating, having a heart attack, losing control, or even ‘going crazy’. As a result, she may develop a fear of the panic attacks themselves, and this fear begins to trigger further panic attacks. A vicious circle takes hold, with panic attacks becoming ever more frequent and ever more severe, and even occurring completely out of the blue. This pattern of panic attacks is referred to as ‘panic disorder’, and can in some cases lead to the development of secondary agoraphobia in which the person becomes increasingly homebound so as to minimise the risk and consequences of having a panic attack. Panic attacks can occur not only in anxiety disorders, but also in depression, alcohol and drug misuse, and certain physical conditions such as hyperthyroidism. They can also sometimes occur in people who are not otherwise ill.
Managing your anxiety
The first step in managing anxiety is to learn as much as you can about it, as a thorough understanding of your anxiety can in itself reduce its frequency and intensity. It can be tempting to avoid any objects or situations that provoke or aggravate your anxiety, but in the long term such avoidance behaviour is counterproductive. When anxiety comes, accept it. Do not try to escape from it, but simply wait for it to pass. Easier said than done, of course, but it is important that you should try.
Making a problem list
One effective method of coping with anxiety that is related to a specific object or situation is to make a list of problems to overcome. Then break each problem down into a series of tasks, and rank the tasks in order of difficulty. To take a simple example, a person with a phobia of spiders may first think about spiders, then look at pictures of spiders, then look at real spiders from a safe distance, and so on. Attempt the easiest task first and keep on returning to it day after day until you feel fairly comfortable with it. Give yourself as long as you need, then move on to the next task and do the same thing, and so on. Try to adopt a positive outlook: although the symptoms of anxiety can be terrifying, they cannot harm you.
Using relaxation techniques
If a given task or situation is particularly anxiety-provoking, you can use relaxation techniques to manage your anxiety. These relaxation techniques are very similar to those used to manage stress, and can also be used for generalised anxiety, that is, anxiety that is not related to any particular object or situation, but that is free-floating and non-specific. One common and effective strategy, called ‘deep breathing’, involves modifying and regulating your breathing:
— Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds.
— Then purse your lips and gradually let the air out, making sure that you let out as much air as you can.
— Continue doing this until you are feeling more relaxed.
A second strategy that is often used together with deep breathing involves relaxation exercises:
— Lying on your back, tighten the muscles in your toes for 10 seconds and then relax them completely.
— Do the same for your feet, ankles, and calves, gradually working your way up your body until you reach your head and neck.
Other general strategies that you can use for relaxing include listening to classical music, taking a hot bath, reading a book or surfing the internet, calling up or meeting a friend, practising yoga or meditation, and playing sports. As you can see, there is no shortage of things that you can do.