What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety disorders
Treating anxiety disorders
Seeking help

Anxiety is a normal response to stress, which can help an individual to deal with a situation. However, anxiety is a problem if it is experienced all the time to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s life. Anxiety commonly occurs along with depression. However, not everyone who is anxious is also depressed. It is estimated that anxiety illnesses are present in about 5% of the population.

People react differently in different situations. Some seem to sail through life while others become anxious easily. ‘State’ anxiety is where a person becomes anxious as a result of a specific situation. Some individuals are specifically susceptible to ‘state’ anxiety and will become very anxious in a stressful situation. Often this happens because of inherited behaviour, childhood relationships or personality.

What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety can show in two ways; psychological and physical signs. Psychological symptoms include inner feelings of tension and agitation and feeling out of control. Someone with anxiety may believe that disaster is about to strike. They may feel totally detached from the world.

Physical symptoms include palpitations, difficulties in breathing, tightness of the chest, butterflies, sweating and an urge to go to the toilet.

People with anxiety may hyperventilate (shallow and rapid breathing) and this can often be mistaken for other illnesses. Hyperventilating can be very frightening and add even more to a person’s state of anxiety.

A simple treatment for hyperventilation is to breathe in and out of a paper bag. However, in the longer term, treatment is needed for the underlying anxiety and this may include relaxation techniques or medication.

Anxiety disorders
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is where feelings of anxiety are there most of the time for no apparent reason. This often goes hand-in-hand with phobias. It is very common in people who are depressed. Physical illness may also be a cause and it is particularly common as an emotional response to heart attack, for example.

There appears to be an inherited element to generalised anxiety disorder. More women have this problem.

Another form of anxiety is a panic attack and this usually involves severe anxiety with physical and psychological symptoms. Attacks are not predictable and may not appear to have any cause. Hyperventilation is common and the other physical symptoms are similar to generalised anxiety disorder.

Psychological symptoms include fear of losing control or of some other disaster occurring. Panic disorder is common in depression, generalised anxiety disorder or agoraphobia.

A phobia is a fear that is out of proportion to a situation. People with phobias will try to avoid the cause. Phobias can be fears shared by many other humans such as heights, dangerous objects etc. Some may develop as a result of a particular situation such as a car crash, mugging etc.

Social phobia, which is common in depression, is a fear of interacting with people in the normal ways, talking, sharing meals, public speaking etc. Many people have a combination of social phobia and agoraphobia. The latter is a fear of leaving the house or being in a crowded place. Agoraphobia is more common in women.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is when a person has obsessional thoughts, which they can’t seem to get out of their mind. This may include a fear of dirt and the need to clean repeatedly or to carry out copious washing of hands. They may worry that an important task has not been done and carry it out repeatedly eg. turning off lights, locking the door. There may be a ‘formula’ for a task eg. the sink has to be washed six times to be clean. In severe cases of OCD, the individual may devote every waking hour to the tasks. Researchers have not made much progress in discovering what causes OCD.

Treating anxiety disorders
Treatment is individualised and may include both psychological and drug treatments. Symptoms are assessed by the doctor, who can then recommend a suitable approach to treatment. The anxiety symptoms may be caused by another condition like depression and therefore the first priority will be to treat the depression.

Psychological options include learning different techniques to overcome the various types of anxiety problems. These can be very effective in developing coping mechanisms. Relaxation techniques may also be helpful.

Antidepressants may be used for treating anxiety disorders as many people have a combination of anxiety and depression symptoms. Your doctor will prescribe the most suitable antidepressant for your particular circumstances. Other medicines are used to relieve anxiety symptoms in the short-term.

Seeking help
If you are worried about anxiety symptoms, talk to your doctor. Anxiety can be frightening and reassurance may be enough. If you have an anxiety disorder, there is lots of help available including psychological approaches, medicines, support groups and helpful literature.

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