Let’s face it, we all feel anxious from time to time. Whether you are preparing for a big test, a deadline at work, or caring for a sick child, a little bit of anxiety is normal – and even helpful. Mild anxiety can help motivate us to take action. (“I’d better get started on that presentation for work on Monday…!”) However, if you are feeling anxious most of the time, or if anxiety is getting in the way of accomplishing the things you want or need to do (getting to school or work, socializing, leaving your house), you may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is defined as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.
Who is affected by anxiety disorders?
While mental health issues affect us all, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, one in four Canadians (25 per cent) will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, and 12 per cent of all Canadians, in any given year, will experience an anxiety disorder. It is the most common mental health issue in women, and the second most common mental health issue in men.
There is no simple explanation as to why some people develop an anxiety disorder. It can be caused by a number of factors, such as personality, negative life experiences, genetics and brain chemistry.
How to recognize an anxiety disorder.
If you answer yes to the following questions, you may have an anxiety disorder:
- Do you have anxious thoughts like “I’m losing control” or “If I go to that party, I’m going humiliate myself” or “Everyone is judging me right now”?
- Do you experience physical symptoms like dizziness, shortness of breath, shaking or heart racing in some situations?
- Do you avoid things like socializing, driving, or exercising to feel safe or less anxious?
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, a panic attack is a feeling of intense fear or terror that lasts for a short period of time. It involves physical sensations like a racing heart, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, shaking, sweating or nausea. Some people feel like they’re having a heart attack or suffocating, or fear that they are dying.
Believed to be due to an overload of adrenalin, and an imbalance in the process of oxygenation, anyone can have a panic attack. They can be terrifying and lead people to avoid certain situations or activities.
What you can do.
There are a number of things you can do to manage your anxiety. It’s important to find what works for you. Here are a few things you can try today:
When you are feeling anxious, this exercise can help calm your mind and body. Here’s how it works: Find a safe, quiet place to sit, breathe deeply and think of:
- Five things you can see in the room.
- Four things you can feel (i.e., “the chair on my back”, “my feet on the floor”)
- Three things you can hear (clock ticking, birds chirping outside, traffic noises)
- Two things you can smell or like to smell.
- One thing you like about yourself.
Accept your feelings.
When we feel anxious, often our first instinct is to fight it. Although it seems like a good idea, it can actually increase our feelings of anxiety – and end up making us feel worse.
The next time you are experiencing feelings of anxiousness, don’t fight it – accept it. Tell yourself that you are feeling anxious, and that’s okay. Sometimes, symptoms of anxiety is your body’s way of getting your attention about something that you have been avoiding or neglecting. Ask yourself, “What is my anxiety trying to tell me?” Curiosity may help minimize anxious thoughts and feelings.
Be a thought detective.
When you have anxious thoughts – take a moment to write them down. Ask yourself “Is this likely to happen?”, “Is it really true or does it just seem that way?”, “Is this worry realistic?” As a ‘thought detective’, your job is to find out if your thoughts are based in fact or fiction.
Nurture your mind, body and spirit.
Getting a good night’s sleep, drinking lots of water and exercising can go a long way to brighten your spirits and take you mind off what’s worrying you. Do the things you love. Listen to music. Be in nature. Call a friend. Laugh. Whatever works for you – just do it!
Asking for help can be hard – it takes courage to reach out for support. The good news is, if you are suffering with an anxiety disorder, there are plenty of treatment options available. In addition to self-help tools, there are counselling, medication and support groups. And talk to your friends and family and explain how they can support you.
Check out these links for more information:
American Psychological Society http://www.apa.org
Anxiety Canada http://www.anxietycanada.ca/english
Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://www.adaa.org
Canadian Mental Health Association http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/phobias-and-panic-disorders/
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health http://www.camh.ca
Kessler, R. C. (2006). Comorbidity of Depression and Anxiety Disorders. SSRIs in Depression and Anxiety, 87–106. doi:10.1002/0470846518.ch3
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