You, or your friends and family, may be experiencing anxiety without even realising it.
If you’re like most people, there will be times that you feel a little stressed and “keyed up”. We know that nobody lives a stress-free life, but when does stress, or feeling keyed up, become something more, namely anxiety?
What is anxiety?
Worry, at its core, is an expression of anxiety. It’s the distress we experience in the face of unknowns, concerns about outcomes, and every type of uncertainty. Anxiety is often with us more than we would acknowledge, in fact it's a natural part of “the human condition” – we live lives full of uncertainties. Anxiety disorders are relatively common – it’s estimated that about one in seven Australians will suffer from an anxiety disorder in any given year.
We’re all “wired” differently and therefore we all have different levels of tolerance of uncertainty. Some people seem to easily take things “in their stride” whilst others may worry to the point where it gets in the way of their normal day-to-day living or activities - when this happens anxiety is becoming a problem.
Why is anxiety sometimes okay, and sometimes a problem?
Signs that you're getting anxious include getting a dry mouth, tight muscles, a clenched jaw, and a rapid heart beat. When this happens your body is in “physiological hyperarousal” – a hardwired response from millions of years of evolution that's designed to prepare you to deal with adversity. In the ye-olden days, this response might have helped us to fight off a wild animal or other threat. These days it tends to help us to get prepped for something like a sporting event or public speech. The fast heart rate and tense body that we experience when anxious can help us to think very clearly and respond to the stressor at our peak physical capacity.
Unfortunately, sometimes this response goes too far, to a point where it becomes disabling. It sometimes robs us of sleep, removes the joy from events that would normally be fun, stresses relationships, and undermines self-confidence. It might mean we 'freeze up' when what we need to do is take action, it sometimes leads to a frustrated, irritable or aggressive response, and it can also lead to a 'flight response', where we flee from whatever it is that is stressing us.
Why isn't it always obvious that someone is anxious?
We can be very good at hiding anxiety, either deliberately or subconsciously. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is a felt responsibility to be okay – to “have it all together”. Asking for help is difficult when so many of us have powerful beliefs that we must be on top of everything 24/7. We might feel that asking for help is an indication of failure or a negative reflection on us as a person, which can lead to a sense of shame. Shame is a very disabling emotion, and it can sometimes keep us in patterns of behaviour (like saying we’re feeling ok when we’re not) that in the long run harm us because we don’t reach out for the support and help that we really need.
Another reason that anxiety isn’t always obvious is that it tends to “sneak up”. Like the proverbial “frog boiled in a pot”, anxiety produces symptoms that are often initially barely noticeable. It’s not unusual for people to adjust to these symptoms until they’re no longer even recognised. Symptoms then continue to slowly increase on a weekly and monthly basis. This pattern can mean that many people suffering from anxiety don’t know that this is the case until their symptoms (and their impact on their day-to-day functioning) are very significant.
Signs of clinical significant anxiety
Some of the clues or signs that you or someone else you know is experiencing clinically significant anxiety could be:
It’s probably not surprising that worry is the key sign of anxiety. More than the worry we all experience from time to time, worry linked to clinically significant anxiety is persistent and very hard to control. It may be worry about a particular type of situation, or it may be a “free floating” worry that could be linked to many different concerns, but when it’s clinically significant it’s likely to occur frequently and it’s likely to continue despite your best efforts to ignore or suppress it.
Not everyone who suffers from anxiety struggles with sleep disturbance, and not every sleep disturbance is caused by anxiety. But difficulties with sleep is certainly one of the most common symptoms of anxiety. This can take many forms, but the most common relates to “delayed sleep onset” – basically, difficulty falling asleep.
Difficulties in concentration are also common for those suffering from anxiety. Again, not all concentration lapses are related to an anxiety disorder, and anxiety doesn’t always produce significant reductions in concentration, but when present with other symptoms it may be a sign of underlying anxiety.
Tense muscles, a “tight jaw”, trembling, excessive sweating, dry mouth, a racing heart – all of these are often associated with clinically significant anxiety. Not everyone will experience all of these, but at least some of these physical symptoms are normally associated with clinically significant anxiety.
What to do if you recognise these signs in yourself or someone else.
Arrange an appointment with your GP as a first step – they can discuss your symptoms with you and evaluate whether you might benefit from further assessment with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
It’s worth asking your GP about creating a “mental health care plan” – if you’re referred to a psychologist under such a plan you will currently receive a Medicare rebate on up to twenty sessions per year (ask your GP for details).
Given how common anxiety is, it’s reassuring to know that there are several highly effective approaches to treatment that can improve symptoms and restore quality of life. Some types of antidepressant medications have been found to be highly effective, as has Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a talk therapy psychological treatment.
Online help available now on Aurora Cloud Clinic
Aurora Cloud Clinic offers both medication, talk therapy, or blended treatment depending on patient preferences and needs. We have extensive experience in helping people to overcome anxiety, and can deliver you specialist psychological care using video-call technology. Contact us today for more information on 1800 955 665 or book a consultation online now on our link below.