Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear that everyone experiences from time to time. While occasional anxiety is normal, some people suffer from more persistent, excessive and debilitating anxiety that severely interferes with daily life. This level of disruptive anxiety is classified as an anxiety disorder.
In the United Kingdom, anxiety disorders affect around 8.2 million people, making them the most common mental health disorder. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. Anxiety disorders typically develop in childhood or early adulthood but can manifest at any age.
Anxiety has both psychological and physical symptoms stemming from activation of the body's fight-or-flight response. Psychologically, people may feel tense, restless, irritable or have difficulty concentrating. There is often a constant sense of being nervous, on edge, worried or fearful. Sufferers tend to be consumed by hypothetical worst-case scenarios and catastrophes.
Physically, anxiety triggers the body's sympathetic nervous system, preparing to confront or escape perceived danger. This releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, leading to:
Increased heart rate and blood pressure to circulate oxygen to major muscle groups
Rapid, shallow breathing or hyperventilation
Sweating and muscle tension especially in the neck, shoulders, back and chest
Trembling, dizziness, headaches
Nausea, "butterflies" in the stomach, diarrhoea
Prolonged anxiety causes chronic activation of the fight-or-flight response. Over time, this can lead to high blood pressure, digestive issues, insomnia, chronic fatigue and a compromised immune system.
There are several types of diagnosed anxiety disorders:
Generalised anxiety disorder involves persistent, exaggerated worry about work, relationships, money, health or other daily issues. The anxiety tends to be unfocused, constant and overwhelming.
Social anxiety disorder involves intense fear of social situations, public speaking, eating in front of others or using public restrooms due to fear of embarrassment, humiliation or judgement. This often leads to avoidance.
Specific phobias relate to fear of particular objects or situations such as heights, flying, animals, needles, blood, germs or driving. Exposure to the phobic stimulus triggers anxiety.
Panic disorder involves repeated, unexpected panic attacks featuring sudden terror along with physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness and feeling detached from reality.
Separation anxiety disorder involves excessive fear of being away from home or loved ones, especially in childhood.
Obsessive compulsive disorder features intrusive, unwanted thoughts that often trigger repetitive behaviours aimed at reducing anxiety caused by the obsessive thoughts.
A vicious cycle develops when the physical symptoms of anxiety reinforce fearful thoughts and vice versa. This is the fight-or-flight response – when faced with perceived danger, the body prepares to confront or escape the threat. But with anxiety disorders, the threat is misunderstood and the anxiety response becomes dysfunctional. For example, physical symptoms like a pounding heart are mistaken as signs of danger or harmless actions by others are wrongly seen as threatening
Sufferers may rely on safety behaviours (e.g. limited eye contact or staying quiet in social situations) and avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations for temporary relief. But these reinforce the anxiety over the long-term, perpetuating the vicious circle. Understanding this mechanism is the first step in breaking free from anxiety’s grip.
While anxiety disorders often require professional treatment, there are many self-help techniques that can aid coping. Learning to self-soothe and self-regulate the nervous system is key to managing anxiety holistically, as explained in more detail in THIS article.
Relaxation practices like deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, yoga and tai chi facilitate activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This counters the fight-or-flight response of anxiety and lowers heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Regular cardio exercise like walking, swimming or cycling also help to release muscle tension.
Gradual, systematic desensitisation to feared situations enables you to build confidence and resilience. Commencing with manageable challenges and slowly progressing allows you to prevent avoidance. This also reinforces self-efficacy in tolerating uncomfortable anxiety symptoms as they surface.
Lifestyle changes like limiting caffeine, sticking to a sleep routine, exercising frequently and eating a nutrient-dense, low sugar diet can avert anxiety flare-ups. Spending time outdoors, especially in natural green spaces, can reduce stress through relaxation.
Additionally, having a strong social support system is advantageous. Confiding in trusted friends and family can assist with diffusing anxious thoughts. Joining a support group reduces isolation and helps you realise many others struggle with anxiety too. Volunteering and helping others boosts feelings of meaning and purpose.
Professional psychotherapy and hypnotherapy offer effective anxiety alleviation by addressing root causes. Psychotherapy techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy assist in identifying and reframing anxious thinking patterns.
Hypnotherapy accesses the subconscious mind to uncover and reframe outdated associations or traumas that reinforce anxiety. Counsellors also impart customised coping strategies while providing objective feedback to reframe worries.
Learning to self-regulate anxiety through professional guidance, lifestyle changes and holistic self-care can yield profound benefits like improved social connections, enhanced confidence, inner peace, openness to new experiences and greater passion for life!
As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron wisely said:
"When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fearlessness."
Having the courage to face anxious feelings with self-compassion allows us to transform anxiety from enemy to teacher. Anxiety can guide us to live more mindfully and purposefully when we approach it without harsh self-judgement.
The first step is acknowledging anxiety's disruption and seeking assistance through therapy, support groups, self-help techniques and lifestyle changes. Consistent effort to self-soothe and build resilience provides an alternative to being controlled by anxiety. Support groups provide community, while self-help techniques cultivate resilience.
Seeking help is an act of courage and self-care. Constructing a personalised toolbox of techniques takes time and patience but yields lasting rewards.
Be kind to yourself in the process; progress happens in small steps. With consistent practice of anxiety-reducing skills, you can live fully on your own terms rather than being controlled by anxious thoughts.
If you're ready to take the next step in breaking free from anxiety in a safe therapeutic space, contact me - we can book a free initial consultation to discuss details.
The best time to change your future is NOW.
Love & light,
Hypnotherapist and counsellor
Holistic Transformative Therapy
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