Anxiety is not a dirty word. We’ve all felt anxious at various points in our lives, whether it’s anticipating exam results, speaking in public, or taking an important decision.
Words by Colin Armstrong
These feelings are usually temporary but that’s not the case for those who suffer from an anxiety disorder, a type of mental illness that stops many people from being able to go about their daily lives as normal.
What is anxiety disorder?
Anxiety is a blanket term that covers a range of specific disorders, including general anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.
It’s important to note that anxiety differs from fear. Anxiety is generally an emotional reaction to something that is an unknown or to imagined situations that may not occur, while fear itself is a reaction to a real and actual threat, situation or occurrence.
It can also cause physical symptoms in many people, especially in the case of an anxiety attack, including shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and dizziness.
“Anxiety is a level of fear or apprehension that causes dysfunction in a person’s life,” says Dr Haytham Shabayek, specialist and head of the psychiatry department at Burjeel Hospital. “Usually, the anxiety disorder comes with two types of manifestations: psychological and physical.
“Psychological manifestations are things like fear, irritability, panic, restlessness, uneasiness and discomfort. In terms of physical symptoms, anxiety can cause tightness of the chest, dryness of mouth, difficulty in swallowing, palpitations and a racing heartbeat.”
How common is it?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 18 percent of the population, about 40 million people, yet only a third of these people seek medical help.
In the UK, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in 2013 – that’s roughly one in every eight people – with women being twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder than men.
“Anxiety is very common, but it occurs on different levels; some people have mild cases and it’s manageable but for others it can seriously affect their quality of life,” explains
“The most common type is general anxiety disorder, then there’s social phobia where people are uncomfortable in public for one reason or another and finally there’s a specific phobia, where a certain set of circumstances causes emotional distress and panic. Only the individual suffering from anxiety will know seriously that it affects them in their life.”
While some sufferers are able to control their anxiety, overcome it and resume living a normal life, others struggle and will actively avoid situations that give them anxious feelings.
In cases where anxiety is hampering an individual’s ability to lead a normal life, it’s important to seek help and make changes.
Living with anxiety
“Everyone is loudly pointing out something you did wrong, or something you should have done better or some disaster that may happen,” Sarah explains. “Each is screaming out horrible things and you’re hearing them all at once.”
For people who don’t suffer from anxiety nor know someone who does, it’s difficult to contemplate what it is like, how it affects a person and what they have to go through.
Additionally, issues surrounding mental health and conditions can be misunderstood or in some cases entirely overlooked and undermined because they always don’t exhibit obvious physical symptoms.
“With anxiety, a lot of people think it’s just worry, but it’s really a lot more than that,” Sarah continues.
“People tend to think we’re overly dramatic or that we can switch it off, and they really don’t understand how horrible, and even crippling, it is.
“Another thing people don’t realise is that anxiety attacks can be silent and even invisible. It’s not always what you may picture an attack to be.”
For the most part, anxiety is internalised, meaning the severity of it is only truly understood by the person as they attempt to deal with what is often described as intense emotional distress.
There’s no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with anxiety either; each person will have their own way in finding a solution, even temporary, so that they can regroup and regain some control.
“When I’m having bad anxiety, I can’t handle being around people, so I’ll try and find a place to be alone,” Sarah adds.
“It slows you down, basically, because you stop what you’re doing and you try to wait out the anxiety. It makes it harder to focus, too.”
While it may be affecting your day-to-day life, it’s often hard to open up about the burden and share your feelings with others, but this can only add to the problem.
Another anxiety sufferer, who chooses to remain anonymous, explains: “I would say it’s okay to feel anxious, it’s normal. It’s not a sign of weakness.
“There’s a lot of stigma around it and our mental wellbeing, that you shouldn’t feel that way or talk about it, but you absolutely should.
“People need to understand that it doesn’t mean that you’re not normal; you shouldn’t be scared to ask for help because if you don’t ask for help you won’t overcome it.
“You need to accept yourself and understand that it’s okay to feel that way. Everyone has flaws and you just need to take ownership of it and work towards a solution without fear.”
What can be done?
“Patients can be treated for anxiety in two ways: with a short-term course of medication and with psychotherapy sessions. Usually the best results are a mix of these two, but each case has to be judged individually.
“The main thing is that anxiety can be treated and patients can make progress when they seek help from a professional.”
DSon’t have the confidence to seek medical assistance, but concerned that you might have anxiety? You can visit anxiety.org and take the Do I Have Anxiety Quiz to take your first step.
Suffering from mild anxiety? Making these small changes could help.
Get some shut-eye
Sleep is hugely important to our overall wellbeing. Try to get a solid eight hours every night to reset your body and mind.
Reduce your caffeine intake
Love coffee? Tea? Try switching to an alternative, at least in the short-term, as caffeine can exacerbating anxiety and panic in some people.
Breathing deeply, and slowly, can lower stress and give you instant relief when feeling stressed or anxious by restoring your heart rate and improving blood flow.
Look for triggers
Are you feeling anxious in a certain situation or at a particular time? Try to assess what is creating these feelings and see if you can alter it to reduce the effects and stop anxiety attacks building.
Friends, family or a doctor can help to talk you through your experiences and share the burden; keeping things bottled up does no good.