This post was written by Dr. Temitope Okuwoga and edited by Lani Sodunke.
It is normal for everyone to worry and feel stressed when particular life situations demand it. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension, a typical response by the body in anticipation of impending unfavourable conditions.
Before writing an examination, going for an interview, making a presentation, running late to work, getting stuck in traffic or sky diving would make most people anxious, which is normal. Anxiety is in fact, a healthy emotion that is necessary for survival because it acts as an internal alarm to foreseeable problems.
Children and adults alike feel it, sometimes several times in a day. Most feelings of anxiety last between a few minutes to a few days, depending on the intensity of the stress. It, however, only becomes an anxiety disorder when the feeling of worry or fear is excessive and persistent, sometimes even in the absence of stressful circumstances, intrudes your thoughts uncontrollably and interferes with your ability to carry out normal daily activities.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Many anxiety experiences are caused by ‘phobias’, which are irrational fears of things unlikely to cause harm. There are different kinds of phobias, and they cause anxiety in other circumstances.
Phobic anxiety disorder (specific phobias)
Here, anxiety is mainly evoked by particular circumstances or objects which are not usually dangerous in those moments. Because of the fear associated with those circumstances or objects, the individual avoids them or treads with caution around them. They usually have anxiety before encountering those situations and have imagined fears such as dying while/after experiencing them.
Even when other people do not regard the situation as posing any threat, their fear is not alleviated. They include specific things such as fear of animals, fear of natural environments like darkness or heights, fear of blood or medical issues, fear of driving, fear of water bodies, etc.
This anxiety occurs mainly due to fear of public spaces, fear of crowds, fear of leaving their houses or travelling alone. They express extreme avoidance of markets, public buses or trains, etc. They often feel that something terrible may happen to them, like collapsing, and they would be left helpless on the street. This results in them ending up being housebound.
This anxiety is attached to fear of social gatherings (smaller than the crowds in agoraphobia). They are afraid to be scrutinized or criticized by others, even though nobody has given them any such attention. People with social phobias usually have low self-esteem, which is often the root of those irrational fears. They end up subjecting themselves to staying away from any/most social situations such as public speaking or eating in public spaces.
Generalized anxiety disorder
The anxiety experienced here is persistent and generalized, not restricted to particular situations or objects. There is usually a general feeling of unease, tension, dizziness, nervousness, discomfort and other symptoms. The symptoms are highly variable, with different symptoms that may occur at different times, other worries, and impending doom preoccupation. These symptoms are there on most days of the week and can be present for weeks on end or for several months.
Mixed anxiety disorder
Individuals commonly have a generalized anxiety disorder and prominent symptoms of other mental health disorders. Some of these disorders that can be mixed with anxiety include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Hypochondriacal disorders
- Somatization disorders
Symptoms of Anxiety
Different individuals experience different anxiety symptoms, and the same individual may experience various symptoms in each episode of anxiety. Common symptoms include:
- Worries about unfortunate events in the future
- Difficulty in concentration
- Feeling nervous, fidgety or “on edge.”
- Tension headaches
- Sweating excessively
- Increased heart rate
- Palpitations (awareness of heartbeat)
- Chest pain
- Epigastric discomfort
- Chest tightness
- Increased or decreased breathing rate
- Dry mouth
- Tremors of the hand or shaking of the body
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
What to do if you have anxiety
1. Take deep slow breaths.
As you do this, try to focus on each breath, putting your attention on how your stomach rises as you breathe in. You can count down from four as you inhale and exhale. Do this several times until your breathing slows down by itself.
2. Recognize your feelings and fears and accept them as your own.
This is a part of practicing mindfulness, fully aware of your present thoughts without reacting to them. While doing this, gently remind yourself that the situation you fear is not real and would pass away.
3. Close your eyes and use guided imagery.
Using your thoughts and imagination, focus on peaceful mental images that evoke relaxation, using mind-body connection.
Some essential oils have been shown to soothe the body and mind. These oils such as lavender, jasmine, chamomile, bergamot, rose, and many more, have been used for relieving stress and anxiety. You can pour them in your bath water, inhale them or have a body massage done with them.
5. Have a cool bath and listen to cool, relaxing music in a quiet environment with relaxing scents (you can use scented candles or diffusing oils)
6. Lifestyle modification.
This helps to prevent anxiety attacks from happening and reduce their severity. They include regular exercise, meditation and yoga, eating healthy balanced diets, limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, and learning how to reduce and manage stressful daily occurrences, so they do not blow out of proportion.
Are there tests to diagnose an anxiety disorder
Anxiety disorder is a clinical diagnosis. The person must have had anxiety symptoms for most days of the week, for at least several weeks at a particular time, and usually for many months. Your doctor will use the diagnostic criteria from DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) or ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Edition).
However, your doctor may conduct a physical examination on you and run some blood tests. But to check your heart activity, you may be sent for psychological evaluation.
Do you have a panic attack?
Panic attacks are severe forms of anxiety attacks. They are often recurrent and not restricted to specific situations, making them difficult to predict.
Many people often think anxiety attacks and panic attacks mean the same thing, but they are not. The main differences are:
- Panic attacks are sudden and mostly unpredictable
- Panic attacks are severe and have more physical severe symptoms (sudden onset of chest pain, dizziness, sensation of choking, awareness of their heartbeats)
- People with panic attacks feel they are unreal or their environment is unreal
- People with panic attacks have a fear of losing control of their lives, going mad or dying.
Symptoms of panic attacks vary depending on the individual. These attacks usually last for minutes. Because of the fear or uncertainty of having another attack, they typically fear being alone or in public places. Having recurrent panic attacks mean that you have a panic disorder.
Although there is no particular known cause for panic attacks, some risk factors include:
- Stressful life situations such as losing a loved one or financial problems
- Witnessing traumatic events that may cause you to worry or remember past traumatic events or having a post-traumatic stress disorder
- Medications for other illnesses such as seizures, asthma or thyroid problems.
- Having an anxious personality
- A previous panic attack
- Having specific phobias, agoraphobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Family history of anxiety or panic disorders
- Use of alcohol or other psychoactive substances, or withdrawal from them
- Living with a chronic medical condition
If you have a panic attack, you can adopt the same mechanisms for anxiety attacks above.
Are there medications for anxiety?
In addition to psychotherapy, your doctor may recommend medications such as:
- Antianxiety medications
- Antidepressant medications
It is crucial to speak to and follow up with your doctor concerning medications, so you do not take them wrongly. Your doctor may offer a combination of these medications or switch them depending on your symptoms.
If your anxiety symptoms affect your everyday life and prevent you from carrying out normal daily activities, consult your doctor.
Do you have repeated panic attacks or anxiety? Thousands of doctors are available to attend to your needs at CribMD. Don’t forget to speak to a doctor today!