Nervous or anxious? A guide to understanding anxiety disorder.
“Have you ever felt like there’s something bad about to happen in your life? Like you’re leaving the house to go to work, and you have this feeling of anxiety that you might’ve left the stove on, the refrigerator door open, or the door unlocked. You feel like you’ll go home to a burned house. And your life will be over. Then you go through your day, forgetting about it. But it gets replaced with other fearful thoughts. “Did I send that email I needed to?” “Did my proposals have any typos?” “Why is my mum calling me? Did something bad happen?” And throughout the day, you’re just bombarded with all these thoughts. Until you get home, everything’s good. But you’re exhausted beyond explanation. Then you go through the same cycle again tomorrow. And now you feel perpetually tired.”
– A person describing how anxiety feels
Being afraid, worried, and paranoid is normal. It’s actually a survival mechanism we inherited from our ancestors. These feelings have helped our predecessors survive the wild – when times were still dangerous and animals were preying on them. Since this was an important survival mechanism, it was coded in our genetics and became an integral part of our brain’s evolution.
That’s why even up until now when the world is a much safer place, we experience anxiety. Anxiety that acts as a survival mechanism – preventing us from going to situations that our brain sees as “life-threatening.”
What is anxiety?
Beyond Blue says anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. Anxiety is an emotional response our body has when it’s faced with stressful situations. It manifests as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response to unfamiliar or uncertain situations. This happens because our brains are wired to feel unsafe about uncertain and unfamiliar situations. Because in the early days of man, uncertainty could mean death.
Being anxious is a natural feeling for people. We feel it at various times in our lives – before a big presentation, going to new places, or trying out new things.
What isn’t normal is being in a constant state of anxiety or having extreme responses to our fears. These extraordinary events can be considered an anxiety disorder. It is a prevalent mental health issue with 3 million Australians living with anxiety. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. 1 in 4 people will experience anxiety at some stage in their life.
Am I anxious or nervous?
Many people unknowingly interchange anxiousness and nervousness because they’re almost the same. However, two key differences between nervousness and anxiousness are intensity and length.
Everyone gets nervous. Be it on a first date, in line for a rollercoaster, or a big speech. But it usually goes away once we’re already in the activity. And it doesn’t stop you from doing the activity.
Anxiety on the other hand tends to be a more intense response. Some people freeze in fear and are not able to move. Some get violent and defensive. Others run away and avoid. While some submit unwillingly.
Further, anxiety tends to have a longer duration. Sometimes to the point of being a lifelong fear. That’s why some people never overcome their fear of needles, doctors, or heights.
What are the different types of anxiety?
Anxiety is not a one-dimensional challenge. In fact, there are five types of anxieties people have. Some have only one or two. While others have all.
These types are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Phobias, Social Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Panic Disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized anxiety is the state of constantly worrying about everything. It’s living a life full of fears about many different things. Having a mindset that something will always go wrong.
This disorder can have its challenges because it tends to interfere with people’s daily lives.
The story shared in the excerpt at the beginning of this article is an example of a Generalized Anxiety Disorder case. The key indicator for GAD is being constantly worried about everything. It’s having a lot of negative what ifs.
Specific phobias on the other hand are more specific. These anxieties tend to be attached to certain things. And this is one of the most common types of anxieties.
Think about fear of heights, fear of doctors, fear of clowns, and all types of fears.
However, for some, these fears are easily conquerable. Some people find it harder. And they tend to have more intense reactions.
For example, a lot of people are afraid of heights. But some can overcome it easily and stand on a ledge of a tall building. While others tend to freeze or faint even just by thinking about walking closer to the ledge.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety is a fear of being in social situations because of the fear of judgment or scrutiny. People with social anxiety tend to feel self-conscious, judged, and constantly worried about embarrassing themselves or being negatively evaluated by others. Another trait of Social anxiety disorder is the ruminating factor – a frame of mind that constantly runs through previous conversations and interactions with the fear that you might have said or done something wrong.
This fear is one of the leading causes why some people tend to be “anti-social.” And in extreme cases, this interferes with people’s lives because they tend to avoid all kinds of social interactions – both personal and professional.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is something people develop after undergoing an extremely stressful event (or chain of events). Traumatic events can include natural disasters, accidents, physical or sexual assault, or war.
It’s important to note that PTSD is not limited to what we may typically perceive to be an extreme event; it can also be a series of events that occurs to someone that disrupts their sense of safety, shatters their emotional equilibrium, and overwhelms their ability to cope. These events might involve prolonged emotional abuse, persistent bullying, ongoing exposure to violence, or even the slow erosion of one’s mental well-being due to chronic stressors. The key factor in the development of PTSD is the profound impact these experiences have on an individual’s psyche, often leaving lasting imprints that manifest in a range of distressing symptoms and reactions.
People with PTSD tend to experience symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, or avoidance of situations or triggers that remind them of the traumatic event.
Panic disorder is an intense manifestation of anxiety that happens repeatedly. It’s usually triggered by the previous anxieties mentioned or at random. It’s also what other people call a panic attack. Some signs of a panic attack are overwhelming fear, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, and breathlessness.
What should I do about my anxiety?
If you think you are experiencing anxiety and it’s interfering with your daily life, it’s important to address it so you can learn to manage it and continue moving forward without the barriers of anxiety holding you back. In overcoming anxiety, it’s crucial to recognise that the goal isn’t necessarily to “fix” anxiety but to manage and navigate its impact effectively.
The focus should be on developing coping strategies and skills that empower individuals to live fulfilling lives despite the presence of anxiety. This entails acknowledging anxious thoughts and feelings without judgment, learning to reframe negative thought patterns, and adopting relaxation techniques to regulate the body’s stress response. By fostering resilience and embracing a gradual exposure to anxiety triggers, individuals can gain mastery over their reactions. This process requires patience and self-compassion, aiming not for elimination but for empowerment in the face of anxiety’s challenges.
If you are considering the use of anxiety medication, it’s essential to embark on this path under the guidance of a qualified healthcare team consisting of a general practitioner (GP), psychologist, and psychiatrist. Anxiety medication can be a valuable tool in managing symptoms, especially when integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan.
Your GP plays a pivotal role in this process, as they possess a comprehensive understanding of your medical history and can assess whether medication is a suitable option. Collaborating closely with a psychologist allows for a holistic approach, addressing the underlying psychological factors contributing to anxiety. A psychiatrist specialising in mental health medications brings expertise in tailoring medication choices and dosages to your unique needs. This collaborative effort ensures that treatment aligns with your overall well-being and minimises potential side effects. Remember, the journey to finding the right anxiety medication and dosage is nuanced and requires ongoing communication between all members of your healthcare team to achieve the best outcomes.
The first step you need to take is to consult with a mental health professional so you can get properly assessed. This will also inform you of what kind of anxiety you are experiencing and the best way to address it, manage it and treat it.
Although having some anxiety in life is normal because it helps us avoid dangerous situations, it should never gain control of your life. It should be a signal of caution from your brain, but not your reality. You have the power to control it, overcome it, and live the life you want.
If you’re expressing symptoms of anxiety, or you know someone who is, you can reach out to MeHelp online psychologists for assistance.
If you require immediate assistance, Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis support telephone service and suicide prevention services.