Figures from the World Health Organization indicate that 40 percent of all disabilities worldwide can be attributed to anxiety and depression. If severe, anxiety can take hold of a person’s mental wellbeing and impact their quality of life
Anxiety is a term used to describe feelings of intense worry and nervousness about situations with an uncertain outcome. It occurs when a combination of the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine are released by the adrenal glands into the bloodstream. Anxiety is as normal an emotion as joy or anger, and is a useful tool in helping take control of stressful situations. But it’s when it persists—occurring more days than not for six months or more—that it begins to have a devastating impact on a person’s overall wellbeing. Unlike stress, which tends to come and go as the causing factor of the stress is dealt with (be it a work deadline or relationship issues), anxiety lingers on sometimes without an identifiable cause and can erupt for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
Symptoms of anxiety manifest physically, psychologically and emotionally. Sufferers may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, dizziness, difficulty breathing, nausea, stomach pains, tension headaches and a dry mouth. Those with the chronic condition have also reported feeling as though they might die, feelings of dread and irritability, having a fear of losing control and avoiding social situations which can lead to agoraphobia. What’s most frightening about anxiety is its role in inducing physical illness. Anxiety has been implicated in heart diseases, respiratory disorders and gastrointestinal conditions such as bloating and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Despite its tendency to cling onto sufferers, anxiety can be treated. Read on for proven ways to help manage this chronic condition before considering medical interventions.
Psychology experts have long extolled the benefits of ‘expressive writing’ on emotional wellbeing. This technique involves writing thoughts and feelings down onto paper without thinking too much about the content or the form, structure and grammar. A study published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment journal (Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing; Jaren A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm, 2005) found that writing about emotional, traumatic or stressful events for 15 to 20 minutes, three to five times a week led to significantly improved psychological and physical health in participants. Interestingly, major long-term benefits of expressive writing also included reduced depressive symptoms, reduced blood pressure, greater psychological wellbeing, improved lung function and improved immune system functioning.
Spend 20 minutes uninterrupted each morning to write about anything that comes into your mind. This may include fears, recollecting traumatic events, relationships with friends and family and workplace anxieties. The idea is to diminish mental clutter for the day ahead and to provide an emotional catharsis that will ultimately lead to reduced anxiety.
The term ‘mindfulness’ sounds fairly abstract, but, simply put, it is the practice of awareness of the present moment and taking non-reactive stock of your thoughts, feelings and environment. This technique works to counteract feelings of anxiety directed to the future or the past by bringing your awareness to those feelings, accepting them and then detaching from them.
For beginners, apply the simple ‘anchoring’ method when feeling stressed by focusing first on your feet inside your shoes and how that feels. Do they feel warm? Tingly? Comfortable? Then expand that awareness to any sensations in the legs, stomach and chest. In time, practitioners can apply this process to a number of daily activities including non-judgementally observing their anxiety and even eating and speaking with friends.
Mindfulness has been shown to have numerous health benefits including increased self-esteem and significantly reduced cortisol levels—one of the main perpetrators of anxiety.
Apps leading the anxiety-free revolution
It should be stressed that apps cannot cure anxiety, nor are they a replacement for therapy, but they can aid in relieving day-to-day stresses:
1. Beat Panic guides users through a panic attack.
2. Catch It is a free app that teaches users to manage anxiety by changing their perspective of negative feelings to more positive feelings.
3. Chill Panda is currently being tested in the NHS. The app measures the heart rate of the user and suggests tasks to improve mental wellbeing, including simple breathing techniques and light exercises.
If the above methods don't provide enough anxiety relief, then it is time to consult with a doctor. They may suggest psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or prescribe medication suited to individual circumstances. These may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as escitalopram and paroxetine; serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) including venlafaxine; and benzodiazepines.
You are not alone. If you suffer with anxiety, reach out:
MIND: Call 0300 123 3393
or text 86463
SAMARITANS: 116 123
NO PANIC: 0844 967 4848
This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digitial edition, here.