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Your mind matters. Find out more about anxiety & where to turn if you need help & support
Anxiety is unfortunately a feeling that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. It’s the body’s normal, natural response to stress or danger. But for some, feeling worried, out of control and fearful is a feeling that never shifts. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives. Anxiety disorders are very common, with around one in six people experiencing symptoms each week. Anxiety can be experienced in lots of different ways.
Generalised anxiety disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder which affects up to five percent of the UK population. It’s a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious and have regular or uncontrollable worries about many different things in your life. Those with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. They often wake up feeling worried and panicky and go to bed feeling the same way. It can affect people’s ability to work, travel, or even leave the house.
Psychological symptoms of GAD can cause changes to the way you think and feel about things leading to:
• A sense of dread
• Feeling constantly ‘on edge’
• Difficulty concentrating
Physical GAD symptoms include:
• A strong, fast or irregular heartbeat (heart palpitations)
• Muscle aches
• Trembling or shaking
• A dry mouth
• Excessive sweating
• Shortness of breath
• Feeling sick
Although feeling anxious at times is totally normal, chat to your GP if your anxiety is affecting your daily life or causing you distress.
Social anxiety disorder
Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is an intense fear or dread of social situations. We all feel nervous before a big event, but for someone with social anxiety, normal, everyday tasks leave them very anxious before, during and afterwards. The disorder affects everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life.
Those with social phobia may:
• Find it difficult to do things when others are watching, such as eating or speaking
• Worry that other people will notice or judge them
• Fear criticism, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
• Have panic attacks when in a situation that makes them feel anxious
• Dread and avoid everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
Those with a panic disorder have regular, sudden panic attacks that feel intense and frightening. Often they happen for no apparent reason. Panic attack symptoms can include:
• An overwhelming sense of dread or fear
• Feeling that you might be dying or having a heart attack
• Sweating and hot flushes, or chills and shivering
• A dry mouth
• Shortness of breath
• Νausea, dizziness and feeling faint
• Numbness, pins and needles or a tingling sensation in your fingers
• A need to go to the toilet
• Ringing in your ears
The number of panic attacks someone has depends on how serious their condition is. Some have them maybe once or twice a month, while others may have them most weeks. It’s important to remember that having a panic attack if you’re stressed or overwhelmed by a certain situation doesn’t mean you have a panic disorder. If you have regular and unexpected panic attacks which are then causing you to worry about having more panic attacks, speak with your GP.
A phobia is an extreme fear of a particular object, place, situation, feeling or animal (or insect). They’re often linked to a frightening event or stressful situation, but sometimes it’s not always clear why a particular phobia has developed. Common phobia examples include:
• Animal (or insect) phobias including spiders, snakes or rodents
• Environmental phobias – like heights and germs
• Situational phobias – such as going to the dentist
• Body phobias – being sick or seeing the sight of blood
Phobia symptoms, just like other anxiety disorders, are different for everyone. Common symptoms include:
• Heart palpitations
• Shortness of breath
• Being sick
Often those with phobias understand they’re worrying more than they probably should or need to, but they find it difficult to change how they feel. For some, just thinking of their phobia can make them feel anxious and panicky, while others may not experience symptoms until they face what they’re afraid of.
Health anxiety or hypochondria is a type of anxiety where a person spends so much time worrying they’re ill, or worrying that they’re going to get ill, that it takes over their life. It’s common for those with health anxiety to:
• Αlways worry about their health
• Constantly check their body for signs of illness, such as lumps or pain
• Rely on those around them for reassurance that they're not ill
• Worry that their doctor may have missed something
• Obsessively look at health information on the internet or in the media
As anxiety itself can cause symptoms like headaches or a racing heartbeat, those with health anxiety may mistake these for signs of illness. If your health worries are stopping you from leading a normal life, speak to your GP about how you’re feeling.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental health condition where someone has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. An obsession is a thought or image that you constantly think about that can be difficult to control and ignore. These thoughts can be disturbing, which can make you feel distressed and anxious. A compulsion is something you think about or do to relieve anxiety. It could be saying a phrase in your head repeatedly to calm yourself, or needing to clean yourself or something else. Maybe it’s hoarding things or checking that the front door is locked over and over again.
Those with OCD find it difficult to stop the compulsions as they believe that something bad will happen if they don’t do these things. Just like for people with a phobia, although they may realise that their thinking and behaviour isn’t logical, it can be very hard to stop.
For some women, being pregnant or giving birth can trigger OCD. This is known as perinatal OCD. Those with perinatal OCD often have obsessions and compulsions that relate to their feelings about their child and being a parent. This can lead to:
• Worrying about harming their baby while being pregnant through eating dangerous foods or taking the wrong medication
• Thoughts about hurting their baby
• Being scared of making the wrong decisions and choices when it comes to looking after their baby
•Excessive washing of clothes, toys or bottles
• Keeping your baby away from other people in case they hurt them
Although these thoughts can be very upsetting and frightening, it’s important to speak to your midwife or GP if you’re experiencing any obsessive thoughts or compulsions to help get you the right treatment and support.
How can I get help for my anxiety disorder?
Living with anxiety can be difficult, but the good news is there are many ways to help ease the symptoms and relax your mind. Exercising regularly is a great way to support your mental health. You may find relaxation and breathing exercises helpful, or you may prefer activities such as yoga or Pilates to help you unwind.
Avoiding drinks containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea, fizzy drinks and energy drinks, may help reduce your anxiety levels. Caffeine can disrupt your sleep, speed up your heartbeat and make you feel more anxious than normal. Smoking and alcohol have also been shown to make anxiety symptoms worse, so steer clear of the cigarettes and alcohol to help your anxiety levels.
Always speak with your GP if you’re worried about your mental health. No matter how you’re feeling there’s help and treatment to help you feel better again. There are also support groups available, including Anxiety UK and Mind, which provide help and advice for anyone experiencing a mental health problem.
How can I help someone I love with their anxiety?
It can be really tough when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety problems. Try not to put pressure on your friend or family member to do more than they feel comfortable with. Always be patient, let them know you’re there to support them and take things at a pace that feels OK for them. Speak to them about their anxiety if they’re comfortable talking to you about it. This will help you understand what they’re going through and help you to know what they need from you when they’re struggling.
If you think your friend or family member’s anxiety is becoming a problem for them, you could encourage them to talk to their GP.
Whilst caring for someone with any kind of mental health condition, it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming at times. It’s important to remember to look after your own mental health too, so you have the energy, time and distance you need to be able to help. Set boundaries, don't take too much on and share your caring role with others, if you can.