There’s the worry, the stress that reverberates around the temple and sees you break out in cold sweats, and then the avoidance – avoidance of the situations and people who induce such feelings which, depending on the extent, could see you hide away in your room for weeks. It would be easy to write this down to nothing more than a hectic work week, but as any clinical psychologist or health expert will be quick to tell you, no, you’re not whingeing. And no, this feeling isn’t normal.
What is anxiety?
While some people tend to always operate on a high frequency of worry, anxiety isn’t merely a case of having first-date nerves, or butterflies during public speaking. In other words, it’s not something that comes and goes easily, but a feeling of being smothered. Like treading water, it can leave you feeling like you’re stuck motionless and in most instances, the feeling is so forceful it begins to take over your life.
As Carla Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in California and author explains, worry is problematic “when it creates chronically anxious thoughts, a depressed attitude, or feelings of being immobilised.” As Manly suggests, anxiety is often experienced in relation to something else, be it depression or loneliness, leading some people to overlook the symptoms and dismiss them as other causes.
Attitudes towards mental health are starting to change. There might be an eye-roll or two, but no one batts an eyelid when a co-worker starts discussing their fitness journey and the nutrient breakdown of their prepped meals. Now, discussion of mental health is similarly becoming something to be talked about openly and honestly.
Particularly when statistics indicate that one in seven Australians will experience depression in their lifetime, and over two million Australians experience anxiety, it’s clear that these mental health disorders don’t discriminate by age or gender.
What causes anxiety?
In Lost Connections, Johann Hari writes that as a society, we’ve become reliant on biological explanations of depression, which see it labelled an imbalance in people’s brain, perhaps one even explained by genetics. Hari, who is quick to recognise that even he gravitated towards this diagnosis, suggests that it’s one that ignores external factors and the environment we find ourselves in – one that sees our lives increasingly lived online, as those connections we once had in the real world are lost.
As Hari’s deep-dive into the world of depression and anxiety illustrates, the solution to these problems lies outside of medical practice and antidepressants. Instead, we need to look at the way we live. With that in mind, here are the five signs you might be dealing with anxiety.
Avoiding situations that make you feel anxious
Depending on the triggers of anxiety, avoiding certain situations is often common. Known as avoidance coping, this method refers to choosing your behaviour based on trying to avoid or escape particular thoughts or feelings. But this method causes anxiety to amplify, as it often leads them to experience more of the very thing they are trying to escape. Even overthinking is considered a type of avoidance coping, as rumination on a topic avoids engaging with it and finding a solution.
It’s important to recognise that avoidance coping doesn’t work, and sucks up a lot of time and mental energy. This can lead to it impacting your work, relationships and health. Build up your capacity to self-regulate and learn to recognise the thoughts that are distorted in order to learn that you can’t always trust any negative thoughts you have.
As anxiety often triggers high levels of stress, obsessive thinking and irritability, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that restlessness often accompanies the condition. When left untreated, anxiety can become chronic and persistent and this is especially felt in one’s sleeping routine and patterns. If your sleep is disturbed or minimal, it might indicate that you’re dealing with anxiety.
Anxiety persists even in the absence of obvious stressors. When it comes to obsessive thinking, this refers to a series of thoughts that recur and are often paired with negative judgments. For people suffering anxiety, this often takes the form of thoughts that they are unable to control and persist, ranging from the distressing to the severe and all-encompassing. When we try to avoid a thought while in an obsessive state, the brain continues to remind us about it to the point where we can’t think about anything else.
Obsessive thinking can become debilitating as rumination on various things rarely offers a solution, and often just intensifies our own negative feelings. It renders us emotionally powerless, victims of our own imagination and can be accompanied by restlessness, too.
To counter obsessive thinking, identify the thoughts and recognise the pattern. Think ‘stop’ when the thoughts first creep into your head, alternatively try writing them down so you can understand how they are triggered and how you respond to them. It helps to understand the cause of the thoughts, that way you can gain perspective and work to address them.
A hallmark of anxiety is irritability. For many, it’s a feeling of constantly being on edge. Small things that wouldn’t normally bother them can leave them in a state of annoyance or agitation. And as a result of the tension, people become more sensitive to stressful situations. Things like stress, a lack of sleep, low blood sugar levels and hormonal changes can all lead to irritability but in its extreme form, one that lingers for an extended period, it tends to indicate conditions like anxiety or depression.
As Johann Hari suggests, anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with depression – the two are not mutually exclusive. As anxiety often leads people to restrict certain aspects of their lives, it’s not uncommon for it to lead to isolation as those suffering tend to isolate themselves from the situations that make them anxious, consequently limiting their social prospects and engagement with others.
This avoidance tends to lead to depression and feeling unable to turn anxiety around. Similarly, the other aspects of anxiety that include obsessive thinking and restlessness can foster feelings that things won’t get better, making it hard to imagine a future where anxiety isn’t dictating your life.
How to stop anxiety
When it comes to managing anxiety, we’d always recommend seeking professional help. Speaking to a counsellor or therapist will help to talk through triggers that make you anxious, and also help to establish relaxation techniques to fall back on when anxiety strikes. Most importantly, if left untreated anxiety has the potential to restrict people’s lives and leave them feeling helpless. By treating anxiety early, when it first rears its head, finding solutions to manage and treat it will go a long way in keeping your life on track.
Exercising regularly will help alleviate anxiety, and similarly ensuring you have enough sleep is crucial. Slow breathing is also said to help with anxiety, and there are a number of apps available on your phone to help encourage you to develop a mindful practice centred on this.