Mental Health: Anxiety

Anxiety is feeling of fear regarding a current or future situation that can threaten us or is perceived to be difficult. Sometimes sever anxiety can provoke a panic attack which is characterised by a lot of mental and physical symptoms. Physical symptoms can manifest as breathing problems or nervous shaking for example. Sweating is a sign of a panic attack.

Possible Causes of Anxiety

  • Genetic predisposition – the ‘nature argument’ whereby some people are more prone to anxiety because of their personality – assumed to be significantly determined by our biological inheritance.
  • Past Experiences such as a traumatic event that can could be emotionally or physically harmful. Perhaps a death whereby the feelings of loss were not properly acknowledged and then further anxieties emerge around possible death.
  • Certain environmental factors can increase likelihood of anxiety such as recreational drug use including cocaine. This is pharmacological mechanism of action as the body’s chemistry is altered.

The Effects of Anxiety

Somebody may feel anxious because of an academic course where there is a lot of pressure to succeed i.e. getting a job or retaining a job. People may feel anxious if an event or situation threatens their welfare or that of someone they care about. Anxiety can arise out of situations where people don’t feel they are able to control the outcome (and the outcome is perceived as significantly desirable) – for somebody this may be a job interview with a panel and they are not sure of whether or not they will get the job.

When someone experiences anxiety, they may feel restless and exhibit fidgeting behaviour. They may feel the ‘opposite’ and have a low mood or even depressed. They may feel emotionally unstable and likely to overreact to situations. When I feel anxious, I definitely feel tense in my neck and shoulders. This is usually my first ‘objective’ sign of feeling anxious.

The mental and emotional effects of anxiety can propel each other. Somebody who has a low mood and feels depressed may feel unmotivated to eat and subsequently tired or poor motivation. Restlessness is a common characteristic and, more subtly, fidgeting. Anxiety can cause people to doubt themselves a lot, loose confidence and be unable to pay attention or make good decisions.

The physical effects often depend on whether or not the anxiety is acute or chronic. Palpitations, increased heart rate, faster breathing and nausea may be associated more with acute anxiety. Whereas muscle tension or gastrointestinal issues (poor digestion, irritability, diarrhoea) may result from more long-term anxiety. Individuals react differently to anxiety and so these characteristics are not definitive and may present in different ways.

Anxiety can be detrimental to one’s ability to concentrate and pay attention. This may affect their ability to maintain relationships with friends and family. Anxiety can affect sleep and cause irritability and others may perceive this as their fault or specifically directed at them. The deepest anxieties may not be ‘cured’ by more superficial or practical measure offered by others who may then feel their help is rejected. Anxiety seems to breed anxiety in others. It’s almost like a herding instinct where if one member of the social group is feeling hurried along, everybody else intuitively picks up on this and also feels hurried along.

How different ways of thinking/behaving affect anxiety

Sometimes negative thoughts can reinforce themselves with anxiety. Somebody may be fearful of attempting a new thing because of fear or failure. They may then fail (or avoid the attempt to fail) and this reinforces their negative self-image and/or thoughts. An individual’s personality can predispose someone to negative thinking. A common scenario may be someone who has grown up in an environment of verbal or physical abuse that affects their confidence and self-esteem. A positive outlook however can break a cycle of negative thinking and help someone to achieve goals – because they believe it is possible.

Managing Anxiety

There are self-help methods for managing anxiety. Where an anxiety can be identified as originating from something specific (e.g. a phobia or specific situation occurring like public speaking); one can gradually expose them self to that situation to become less afraid and more familiar with the situation. Relaxation can be very useful at lowering anxious energy. Some more recent examples of this appearing in the West are Yoga. Meditation and exercise can be other valid means by which we relax. It can be useful to seek help, for example, from the Internet. You tube (and other video sharing sites!) contains many videos where people can engage with the experiences of other people in similar situations. They realise they are not alone and also may find some practical methods by which they can adopt and engage with.

Some activities

I can’t recommend camping highly enough. You can sit down and warm by a camp fire to think things over. I give people little responsibilities such as fetching fire wood, chopping wood or putting a tent up. Camping sort of reminds you what you need to survive and how everything else on top is just a different degree of comfort. The modern world can cause anxiety and sometimes people just need to step out of it for a wee while.

Swimming is a very enjoyable form of exercise that can appeal to people of a range of physical abilities. It provides the usual hormonal/mental feel good factor (serotonin) as well as allowing small goals to be accomplished that can raise someone’s self-esteem. Swimming can help occupy the conscious mind to allow thoughts and feelings to ‘flow more easily’.

Yoga is a superb form of managing anxiety. It allows one to push physical boundaries, again appealing to all abilities and occupying the mind in some form of meditation. In Yoga, people get a sense of achievement from accomplishing moves but also genuinely retrain their central nervous system to better align with the body’s capabilities. Most stretches and poses are actually constrained by the nervous system and not the muscles.

Local resources and treatments

There are many, what I refer to as, holistic treatments such as yoga, meditation and massage. These treatments have a sort of stigma attached in that they are not the sanctioned Westernised therapeutic methods by which people should engage. However, having survived thousands of years, and with more recent ‘clinical evidence’ of their benefits – they are becoming more widely adopted, even fashionable. Psychotherapy is a ‘talking therapy’ where people can discuss their concerns with a trained person.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an example of a talking therapy. Medication is another route available (which should arguably be the last).

Medication can provide symptomatic relief for anxiety which may prevent a disorder from becoming more problematic. When people use medication (e.g. antidepressants) they may gain momentary respite from their condition and more able to tackle the underlying causes of the anxiety.

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