What is anxiety?

23.07.2020

In any one year, over two million Australians will experience anxiety, and as many as one in four people will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Normal anxiety tends to be linked to a stressful situation, like a job interview or a public speaking event. The anxiety goes when the event is over. More persistent anxiety can affect your ability to sleep, work, concentrate or carry out everyday tasks. It can also affect your ability to see situations clearly, viewing them instead as far worse than they really are.

Anxiety can develop gradually, and if left untreated it can lead to depression, which is why it’s important to seek help if you’re struggling to manage anxiety.

The last Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing was held in 2007 found that one in seven Australians had anxiety disorders, and women were almost twice as likely as men to experience anxiety.

Symptoms

The mental health organisation Beyond Blue has a useful anxiety checklist that can help identify if you’ve been affected by anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • Compulsive behaviour, such as cleaning or hoarding
  • Fearful behaviour, such as phobias
  • Excessive worrying
  • Tension headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sweating, trembling or dizziness
  • Stomach pains or diarrhoea
  • Chest pains or increased heart rate
  • Hot and cold flushes
  • Rapid breathing or trouble breathing
  • Feeling tense and on edge
  • Blushing
  • Dry mouth or choking
  • Panic attacks

Around 30% of people will experience at least one panic attack in their lives. Panic attacks come on suddenly, they normally reach a peak within ten minutes, and they can feel overwhelming.

The symptoms of a panic attack can include chest pains, palpitations, shortness of breath, trembling, nausea, lightheadedness, shaking, fear and racing thoughts. The person going through the attack may even be worried they are about to die, which can exacerbate the symptoms.

Anxiety disorders

Panic disorders

Panic attacks can occur out of the blue and vary widely in how often they happen, how long they last and how extreme they feel. Attacks might happen several times a day or only once every few years, lasting from a few minutes to half an hour. Panic attacks can even wake you from sleep, and most people are left feeling tired or exhausted after an attack.

Someone who experiences sudden and recurrent panic attacks may have a panic disorder.

Panic disorders can happen at any age, although they are less common in children and older people. Women are slightly more affected than men and around 5% of Australians are likely to experience a panic disorder during their lifetime.

One or two panic attacks in your lifetime is not unusual and is not a sign of an underlying panic disorder.

Generalised anxiety disorder

People with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) experience persistent anxiety which can’t be linked to a specific stressful situation. The heightened worry associated with GAD can interfere with everyday living and have a negative impact on work, home and personal life.

If symptoms of anxiety are evident on more days than not for six months or more, it may be a sign of GAD. Beyond Blue estimates that nearly 6% of Australians will experience GAD in their lifetime.

Children with GAD can worry excessively about achievement at school, sport, natural disasters or even the threat of war.

As with all anxiety disorders, if you or anyone you know experiences the symptoms of GAD it’s important to seek help.

Phobias

People with social phobias worry excessively in social situations and avoid them if possible, especially if unfamiliar people are involved. They may fear being the centre of attention, making small talk or eating in front of others. Physical symptoms such as blushing, sweating, stammering or trembling can increase the sense of anxiety, which in turn increases the symptoms and causes further anxiety. Ironically, the symptoms that can feel so overwhelming are usually barely noticeable to other people.

Social phobia affects women more than men, and research suggests around 10% of Australians will experience social phobia.

Specific phobias focus on objects, creatures, situations or activities that cause anxiety, such as the fear of snakes or spiders, the sight of blood, fear of flying or fear of being trapped. These phobias are far more extreme than the general dislike many people have of snakes or spiders, or the fleeting sense of anxiety caused by a plane taking off. Specific phobias can be extreme enough to trigger panic attacks.

Specific phobias that occur in childhood, most often in children under 10, tend to be short-lived. Longer-lasting adult phobias are less likely to go away without treatment.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterised by unwanted thoughts that repeatedly intrude. Did I leave the iron on? Did I lock the door? The anxiety caused by such thoughts can lead to obsessive behaviour, such as repeatedly checking that the door is locked, or that the iron is turned off.

Signs and symptoms of OCD can include obsessions about:

  • Cleanliness
  • Order
  • Patterns
  • Hoarding objects
  • Counting objects
  • Safety and checking
  • Sexual issues
  • Religious or moral issues

At any one time there may be around 500,000 people in Australia with OCD (around 2% of the population.)

People with OCD may also experience other mental health issues, including depression, which is why diagnosis and treatment is so important. Unfortunately, the shame that is often associated with compulsive behaviour can lead to delays in seeking help. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects around one million Australians every year. People with PTSD have been through or witnessed a stressful or traumatic event, such as an assault, an accident, a disaster or a war, and it leaves them with extreme anxiety or feelings of fear and helplessness.

Symptoms of PTSD can vary. People may re-live the traumatic event, sometimes in sleep, and they may become overly alert and jumpy. Negative thought patterns can intrude, and they might avoid anything that reminds them of the event they went through. Close relationships can suffer if people with PTSD detach from family and friends, and people with PTSD are more likely to experience other health issues, such as depression or substance abuse.

It’s important to know that PTSD is treatable.

Treatment

There are many ways to successfully treat anxiety and anxiety disorders. You can start by seeing your GP, who can:

  • Complete a mental health assessment
  • Prescribe medications if necessary
  • Refer you to a mental health professional
  • Refer you to other support services

Your GP can also put you on a mental health plan, which means Medicare may subsidise up to 10 sessions with a mental health professional.

Counselling in individual or group sessions and by telehealth (phone or video consult) with psychologists, psychiatrists, or other trained therapists can help you reduce or overcome anxiety. Studies have shown that online therapies can be just as effective as face-to-face interactions for people with mild to moderate anxiety.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a structured treatment that can help you identify and reframe anxious thought patterns. CBT is particularly useful for issues such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and PTSD.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive technique to treat obsessive compulsive disorder and other psychiatric disorders. TMS uses a mild form of magnetic therapy on the part of the brain that controls mood.

Although therapies are believed to be the most effective treatment for anxiety, medication can also help. Antidepressants can help correct the imbalance of chemicals that build up when anxiety disorders interrupt the brain’s chemical messaging system. 

Managing your anxiety

If your symptoms are mild, or even if you’re already undergoing therapy or treatment for anxiety, there are steps and strategies you can take yourself that may relieve some of the symptoms. Each person is different, so try different strategies to see what works best for you. 

Relaxation exercises, meditation and breathing techniques can all help control the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Mindfulness can help you stay present and reduce negative thoughts. Watch our video to learn a five-minute mindfulness task.

Exercise is one of the best ways to boost your mood. Exercise outdoors in nature and you’ll supercharge the benefits.

Research has shown that people who eat more fruit and vegetables may experience higher levels of wellbeing.

Getting a good night’s sleep can reduce your risk of developing mental ill health. Read our tips on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Be kind to yourself. Anxiety is a mental health condition. It’s not your fault.

Get help now

If you or someone close to you needs help now, contact 000 in an emergency or reach out to one of  the below services.

For crisis support:

For general mental health support:

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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