Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time.
Unexpected and worrisome events and circumstances can put our bodies and minds on high alert, which is useful in the short term since this stress response helps us to be ready to manage the situation.
However, when the body and mind are triggered into an anxious state in the absence of any obvious crisis or we cannot return to a balanced state after such an event, anxiety can become a problem.
Anxiety disorders are common. In fact, one in four people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, so it is important to understand how anxiety can develop and what can be done about it. The good news is, anxiety problems are highly treatable.
The signs and symptoms of anxiety include rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, nausea or butterflies in the stomach, feeling sped up, dizzy or light-headed, numbness, and tingling, a choking sensation or a tight chest. These symptoms can be very distressing, triggering more anxiety because they cause us to worry we may have a serious health condition, such as an impending heart attack or stroke.
Anxiety is associated with excessive worry, a sense of dread that something horrible is going to happen and other types of negative thinking. These thoughts can become persistent and interfere with our daily activities. The third component in understanding anxiety has to do with our response to these symptoms. We may avoid facing a feared situation and solving the problems associated with it. Some people use unhealthy coping such as drinking alcohol, going without eating because we have no appetite, or being less physically active. All of these responses are likely to increase symptoms rather than alleviate them.
While there are different types of anxiety disorders, the following approaches are general strategies that are helpful for all of them.
First, it is important to understand the effects of anxieties on the body and mind. This knowledge can reduce the fear and allow more energy and time to be focused on helpful strategies.
Next, it is vital to learn some relaxation strategies. Calm breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two common techniques that help to restore the body to a more relaxed state. Meditation, yoga and mindfulness-based practices also help to restore calm.
Eating well and getting adequate rest and sleep are also key strategies. Skipping meals or indulging in sugar, caffeine or alcohol also tends to worsen symptoms. If poor appetite is a problem, eat small amounts of nutritious food throughout the day.
Daily physical activity such as walking is very helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms and will also assist in getting a better night's sleep.
Make a list of activities you find relaxing such as listening to music, reading or working on hobbies or puzzles, and then incorporate some of these things into your daily routine. Perhaps most importantly, challenge your negative or worrisome thoughts to be more realistic.
It is common in anxiety disorders for thinking patterns to get stuck in a rut of anticipating the worst-case scenario or fearing we will lose control.
Facing the fact we cannot control life -- only our reactions to it -- is part of most treatment approaches for anxiety.
Anxiety is a very real problem and can severely affect a person's life. Severe anxiety often requires treatment by a qualified professional experienced in treating anxiety such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor.
If anxiety is interfering with your well-being, reach out to your health-care provider or online resources for practical solutions.
The sooner you can address anxiety, the sooner you can get back to enjoying life.
Laurie McPherson is a mental-health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.