Let's Talk About It - What is Anxiety?

Woman having anxiety attack

Why is everybody talking about anxiety?

By Dr Julie Moltke

What is the definition of anxiety?

Angst, anxiety, stress: just reading about it can be enough to make your heart beat faster. But what is anxiety and why do so many people seem to struggle with it? First, anxiety is describing a feeling of fear, which may vary from a subtle unease to an actual panic attack. Under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, you find panic disorder, different phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsory disorder and general anxiety disorder (GAD).

What kind of anxiety is most common?

General anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common of the above mentioned and is characterised by often irrational, excessive and uncontrollable worry about events and situations, over a period of more than 6 months. Individuals with GAD ruminate about the past and worry about the future to an extent which is impairing the quality of their everyday life.

Which bodily symptoms are associated with anxiety?

GAD can be accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms including, palpitations, tiredness and fatigue, dizziness and problems concentrating and sleeping. When initially suffering from an anxiety attack, some people mistake the bodily sensations for independent symptoms that are not associated with their feeling of anxiety. This misunderstanding can make people believe there is something physically wrong with them, and lead to even more anxiety creating a vicious circle.

What is the reason for anxiety?

The NHS estimates that about 5% of the UK population are suffering from GAD but the number of subclinical cases might be much higher. What is the explanation for all this unnecessary worry and stress? This question is extremely difficult to answer but factors such as genetic predisposition, earlier traumatic experiences and overactivity in certain areas of the brain that regulate mood and emotions may predispose to anxiety disorders.

Turning towards our external environment we are also facing an almost unprecedented amount of information, the focus on external goals like success, money and body image are driving forces in most western cultures, we use most of our life using technology and we are being measured and evaluated as never before.

Is anxiety always bad?

It is important to remember that everybody can feel anxious or stressed at times and that it is part of the body’s normal response to an external event or threat. You can feel slightly anxious during an important job-interview, before an exam or maybe if you are planning a big event at work or a party at home. Feeling anxious a times is a normal part of life, and it is only when anxiety persistently reduces the quality of life that it can become an actual mental health issue.

How to deal with anxiety

If you are among the 5% with invalidating anxiety disorders my best advice is to speak to your doctor. But for all the rest of us can sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the stressors in our everyday lives we can look at it like this:

Your life is a bucket of water, and all the small stressors in your life (like work stress, social stress and financial issues) are slowly filling up the bucket. Before the water overflows you need to make little holes in the bucket so that the water can slowly disappear from these holes while it fills up from the top.

Imagine that the holes represents positive things that you like to do; like reading a book, going for a walk, cooking, or practicing mindfulness, meditation or yoga. It is all a question of balance.

What are the little things that you do in order to stay balanced and keep the subtle feeling called anxiety at the door?