Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety

How often do you feel anxious? Do you take a long time to relax after the reason for your anxiety has passed? Is your anxiety out of proportion to what has caused it? Does anxiety interfere with your ability to live the type of life you want?

If you feel anxious to the extent that you aren’t able to do what you want or need to do on a regular basis, you may have an anxiety condition.

Anxiety is feelings of fear, nervousness or unease. It’s normal and experienced by everyone. It can even help you to stay safe in situations where you should be on your guard, like when walking home alone at night or driving in dangerous conditions. However, some people experience anxiety even when there’s no rational cause present, and they can take a long time to stop feeling anxious even after the cause is gone. This can impact on people’s ability to live life on their terms because they spend so much time feeling anxious. This is known as an anxiety condition.

Some people are more prone to feeling anxious than others. This is because of their psychological makeup, which is as unchangeable as a physical characteristic. (If someone’s height was a problem for them, you wouldn’t suggest they try becoming smaller.) But you can learn how to control your anxiety, rather than letting it control you.

Learning how to manage an anxiety condition takes a great deal of effort, perseverance and patience. But you’ll be rewarded with a higher quality of life where you have confidence in your abilities to overcome your fears and tell the difference between real and imagined danger.

If your anxiety makes you want to hide away from the world, you may have an anxiety condition

Anxiety conditions are different from person to person

Anxiety conditions have varying degrees of severity and impact, and not all people experience the same symptoms.

Mild anxiety conditions cause people to feel a vague uneasiness, but it doesn’t significantly impact on their daily life. However, unaddressed or improperly managed mild conditions can grow into more serious conditions or lead to unhealthy coping strategies.

Moderate anxiety is more detrimental than a mild condition and it’s experienced most days, but people with it are still able to function and they’re occasionally anxiety-free.

People with severe anxiety have very high levels of distress and struggle to function normally because they’re almost constantly feeling worried and afraid to a debilitating extent. Severe anxiety is also frequently coupled with depression.

Most anxiety conditions build up slowly over time, so many people don’t realise their worrying has started to interfere with their ability to function normally. Recognising when your behaviour has worsened from being a bit over the top to a problem as soon as possible is important because the longer you practice unhealthy habits without realising, the harder they’ll be to break. Once you’ve recognised that you struggle with anxiety, you should take steps to manage your condition.

Regardless of the severity, there are some symptoms that many people with an anxiety condition experience. The most common include:

  • Excessive fear or worrying
  • Obsessing over the future and how bad it could be
  • Catastrophising (expecting the worse to happen)
  • Avoiding situations that cause anxiety, to the extent that it impacts on your life
  • Panic attacks
  • Hot and/or cold flashes
  • Racing heart
  • Tight chest
  • Restlessness and tension
  • Feeling on edge

This isn’t a complete list as people will experience their conditions differently.

Anyone can experience anxiety, and conditions can look very different from person to person

Types of conditions

Anxiety conditions also have different focuses and triggers.

General Anxiety Disorder causes people to feel anxious and worried the majority of the time, and not in specific circumstances. Any sort of mistake or change to plans, no matter how small, can cause uncontrollable anxiety. This makes relaxing enjoying themselves difficult.

Social Anxiety is feeling tense and nervous in public situations. People with this condition typically have an unbearable worry they’ll be judged by others, which makes going out in public very difficult for them.

Some people who have anxiety also have other conditions, such as depression, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Depression is a condition separate from anxiety, but they share many characteristics. Like anxiety, depression is a natural emotion everyone experiences. But it becomes a concern when it is powerful and long-lasting (more than two weeks) and impacts on your quality of life. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include: believing you’re useless, feeling upset and overwhelmed, listlessness, and thinking that life is terrible and always will be.

People with anxiety disorders can have panic attacks when their anxiety is triggered. These are sudden and overwhelming feelings of fear or dread, or even the worry that the attack will be fatal. Frequently experiencing panic attacks can be diagnosed as a panic attack disorder.

Managing anxiety

If you have an anxiety condition, it’s important that you recognise this. If you don’t understand that your behaviour is limiting your ability to live a full and enjoyable life and that your feelings of worry are unnecessary, you won’t be able to make positive changes. You can’t give something the attention it deserves and needs if you haven’t seen it for what it is – a problem.

Because anxiety is a natural human emotion, the treatment for an anxiety condition isn’t to stop feeling anxious. Instead, you take steps to control your emotions and reactions to situations that cause anxiety.

Everyone has different methods that will help them, and you’ll need to experiment to find out which are best for you. But you can start by trying these common anxiety reducing techniques:

  • Breathe slowly and mindfully, especially if your heart rate increases when you’re feeling anxious.
  • Consciously relax all of your muscles, paying more attention to how your body feels than what’s going through your mind.
  • Focus on the present to keep yourself from imagining the worst is about to happen.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle where you do what makes you feel fulfilled and relaxed. This is also known as practicing self-care.
  • Take small steps towards facing your anxiety. As you slowly face your fears – in a way that doesn’t make you too uncomfortable – you’ll begin to realise that your worst fears aren’t as frightening as you believed while preparing yourself to handle them.
  • Talk positively to yourself. Anxiety makes you doubt yourself and your abilities while telling you that a situation is worse than it actually is. And if you listen to these voices, you’ll believe them.
  • Talk to other people who have experienced anxiety to feel less alone and learn their techniques for managing it.
  • Schedule yourself a dedicated time for worrying. Everyone has worries and completely ignoring them isn’t healthy. By having a set time to worry, you’ll be able to address what is bothering you in a controlled manner. And by consciously worrying you’ll be more aware of what your concerns are, so you can begin to understand and fix them.
  • Be kind to yourself. Anxiety is like a bully in your brain so remember that you’re a capable person and your anxiety telling you otherwise isn’t true.

You can begin learning what coping methods work best for you on your own, or you can work with a professional. Getting help will make this process much faster, as trained therapists and counsellors have experience helping people understand their feelings and are familiar with various techniques for managing anxiety.

Most therapists and counsellors believe that talk and behavioural therapies are the most effective methods. These types of therapy aim to change your thought patterns so you can gain control over your anxiety.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is the preferred method of treatment for many therapists. CBT is based on the belief that how we think and act affects how we feel. With a professional, you work to understand the thoughts and behaviour patterns that make and

keep you anxious so you can work on replacing them with habits that help you overcome your anxiety.

CBT helps people:

  • Learn the difference between healthy and harmful worries
  • Let go of their fears and concerns
  • Develop problem-solving abilities
  • Learn how to relax and control their symptoms – mental and physical

This is a long and often times challenging process, but many people have been able to adapt their behaviour through CBT.

In severe cases, medication can be prescribed, but this isn’t a solution on its own. Antidepressant medications can ease the symptoms of anxiety. Benzodiazepines, which are similar to sleeping pills, help people with severe cases of anxiety to relax. However, these are only a short-term aid. They cause reduced alertness and coordination and are highly addictive. These medications make you feel less affected by the symptoms, but they don’t help you manage your anxiety.

This isn’t to say that psychological medications aren’t helpful or necessary for some people. Some conditions can be managed with medication, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Anxiety, however, isn’t a condition that can be cured with a pill.

You have the ability to manage your anxiety, but you’ll need to discover your techniques

Children also experience anxiety

Anxiety doesn’t just affect adults. Even young children can develop anxiety conditions. After all, anxiety is the belief that the worst will happen and you won’t be able to cope when it does, so children can certainly suffer from anxiety.

If you’re the parent or guardian of a child who experiences anxiety, it’s important that you help them to learn how to manage their emotions, instead of reacting in a way that enables their fears.

Just like adults, the treatment for childhood anxiety is for children to learn how to manage their emotions, overcome their fears, and have confidence in their ability to handle situations that make them afraid. You can encourage your child to gradually become more comfortable and confident with what upsets them, like being in the dark or going to the doctor.

If you try to protect your child by swooping in to remove them from situations that cause anxiety, they’ll never learn how to overcome their emotions or cope with feeling uncomfortable. Reacting in a way that gets them taken out of a stressful situation will become the coping strategy.

Help your child to rationally think about their fears. What are the worst case scenarios and how could they realistically react to them? Respect their fears but don’t encourage them or ask any leading questions. For example, don’t ask your child if they’re afraid in a stressful situation. Simply ask how they feel and let them decide.

You can be a good role model by managing your own worries and anxiety. This is important for everyone, not just those with an anxiety condition. This doesn’t mean hiding your feelings from your child or pretending that you don’t have fears and worries of your own. If you deal with your anxiety in a healthy manner, then your child will learn good habits.

Guide your child towards facing their fears rather than accidentally encouraging them

Stigma causes challenges for people with mental health conditions

Many people with mental health conditions experience or fear stigma from others. The World Health Organisation defines stigma as “a mark of shame, disgrace, or disapproval which results in an individual being rejected, discriminated against and excluded from participating in a number of different areas of society”.

Stigma causes people to have fewer opportunities and reinforces their own negative image of themselves. They are also less likely to speak to others about what they’re going through or seek treatment, causing their condition to continue. Some people who experience stigma because of a mental health condition say that it’s worse than the condition itself. Experiencing stigma or fearing it causes additional pressures and concerns.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health illnesses. Approximately one in three women and one in five men live with some form of an anxiety condition. These are pre-COVID figures and the percentage of people with anxiety is likely much higher now. Therefore, many people know what an anxiety condition is like firsthand, or are close to someone with a condition. This makes anxiety quite mainstream and understood in comparison to other mental health conditions.

Two thirds of Australians who have an anxiety condition fear stigma. Specifically, they worry people will believe they’re weak because of their condition, or that their emotions are controllable and they’re just being dramatic for attention.

However, most Australians understand that anxiety conditions are genuine problems for the people who have them. Studies carried out by Beyond Blue, an Australian organisation that provides information and support around mental health, show that 86% of Australians don’t think anxiety is a sign of weakness, and 90% believe it’s a real problem for the people who experience it.

Stigma towards people with a mental health condition is a problem in our society, but people with anxiety are much less likely to experience it than they tend to believe.

Stigma turns people into outsiders worth less than others

Anxiety doesn’t go away or become cured

Anxiety never truly disappears. It’s not like a broken leg that gets put in a cast for a while and then is healed. It’s a part of you (and everyone else) that you’ll always need to be aware of to be sure that it’s not becoming a problem and affecting your quality of life.

Although this may sound daunting, it doesn’t need to be. Accept that learning to manage anxiety will be an ongoing process of self-improvement.

Feeling fully recovered can take years for some people. But you can begin to feel better right away by looking for ways to manage your anxiety – on your own or with a professional.

As you try different methods, remember that learning how to manage anxiety is a process of trial and error. Don’t expect a series of victories while you try different ways to manage your emotions. And don’t expect techniques that help to be permanent – some methods may only work temporarily so don’t be discouraged if you need to adopt new approaches. You’ll have many ups and downs, so stay resilient and dedicated.

Managing anxiety is a long and challenging process, but learning to control your fears and doubts will enable you to live the life you want, instead of being restrained.

Managing an anxiety condition is a long and often indirect journey, but a consequential one

If you experience anxiety, or have any questions about your mental health, please feel welcome to ask me. I’m an experienced counsellor who has worked with people with anxiety conditions in the past and I would be happy to hear from you.

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