What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a generalised pervasive state of fear and dread. All of us experience some occasional anxiety such is the pace of modern life. Many of us become anxious because of the deteriorating state of city traffic or experience dread at the sight of unpaid bills. These can be considered a normal form of anxiety and the effects are usually short lived.

However, for some people these concerns can result in a disproportionate response of intense and persistent dread. Such anxiety can have an enormous effect on the quality of life of the individual. Like ripples in a pool the impact can extend to involve the family and friends of the sufferer.

Sometimes the level of anxiety is so intense that a panic attack is triggered.

How do I recognise it?

Anxiety can produce physical, psychological and behavioural effects.

Physical effects:

  • Increased sweating especially of the palms.
  • Headache is very common and is generally due to increased tightening of the muscles in the back of the neck.
  • Restlessness and fidgeting.
  • Hyperventilation or overbreathing is very common and this contributes to light-headedness due to the inefficient nature of this form of breathing.
  • Various muscle groups become tense which results in stiffness and actual muscle pain.
  • Many people become very tired if anxiety persists unduly.
  • Digestive symptoms are common and include loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhoea.

Psychological effects:

  • Many sufferers of anxiety believe that they are becoming insane but there is no connection between anxiety and insanity.
  • Thought patterns become very negative. The glass is always half empty. Pessimism prevails.
  • Concentration and memory are both affected. For example, the sufferer will often have difficulty reading a newspaper article because his mind is distracted and he has lost the thread of thought in the article.
  • Many people feel trapped and hemmed in and have a need for more space around themselves.
  • Some people become very indecisive when they are anxious.

Behavioural effects:

  • Anxious people will often drink more alcohol to combat their feelings of unease. Although alcohol may reduce anxiety levels initially its main effect is to unsettle them further. Alcohol is a drug and its main impact is on the nervous system.
  • Cigarette smokers will often smoke more when they are anxious.
  • Anxious people are in a state of increased arousal and are always alert and on guard. They are easily startled.
  • Avoidance behaviour develops such as missing school or work.
  • Anxious people often become argumentative and aggressive with family and friends. It takes very little to provoke these outbursts.
  • Anxiety can leave a person feeling very exposed and self-conscious.

What can I do to help myself?

Try to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Ensure you strike a balance between work and time for relaxation. Try to get adequate amounts of sleep at night. Be moderate in your consumption of alcohol and perhaps avoid it altogether if your symptoms are particularly intense. Limit your consumption of tea, coffee and caffeine based drinks. These drinks can increase your level of anxiety because they are stimulants. That is why we feel refreshed or perked up after we drink them.

Regular physical exercise can be very beneficial. It helps to relieve the physical symptoms of muscle tension and can also overcome the shallow breathing associated with hyperventilation. However, exercise need not involve strenuous pursuits. A brisk walk or a swim is adequate.

Breathing exercises can be very helpful if you are feeling very tight around the chest and are restricted in your breathing. Simply take a full deep breath and hold the breath for as long as is comfortable. Then slowly release the breath through pursed lips. The expiration should be as slow and gentle as the preceding inspiration. After the expiration pause for a moment before repeating the exercise.

Try to stop rushing around. Slow down!

It can be helpful to discuss your feelings with a friend, GP or counsellor. Such discussion can help to identify the trigger that produced the anxious feelings.

Try to identify your own particular stress response pattern. For example neck tension and headache may be your common physical symptoms of anxiety. Many of us have our own usual stress response or fingerprint. Recognising the fingerprint helps you to deal with the stress earlier before it becomes too intense.

Many people find it helpful to join a self-help group. A list of relevant groups is appended at the end of this article.

Should I see a health professional?

There is a great deal of help available for people suffering from anxiety. Some people consult with their GP and others choose to see a counsellor. Many counsellors have a background in psychology and most reputable counsellors are properly qualified and listed on a professional register of suitably qualified people.

Unfortunately many people suffer unduly because they are afraid to seek help. Persistent anxiety can reduce the sense of self-esteem and this may explain the reluctance to get help. Don’t feel you are wasting the professional person's time. Most people attending with anxiety feel that way and most experienced professionals will expect such feelings and attempt to dispel such sentiment quickly and gently.

Sometimes medication may be recommended and this issue can cause further anxiety for some sufferers. If you are uneasy about this, question the reasoning for the decision. Sometimes anxiety levels can be so intense with high levels of psychological arousal that the individual is unable to concentrate on the messages being given in the consultation. In the past medication was perhaps prescribed too freely but there is still a place for it in the management of anxiety.

If anxiety is impacting on your relationship with family and friends to a significant degree then get help. Alienating your friends and family may be removing a valuable source of help and support.

See also: Anxiety and pregnancy, Anxiety and depression, Major anxiety ups heart risk.

Support Groups:

Mental Health Association of Ireland.

6 Adelaide St., Dun Laoghaire.

Tel. 01–2841166.


National Office,

Grow Centre,11 Liberty St., Cork.

Tel. 021 277520.


PO Box 2210, Dublin 8.

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