What is anxiety?

Naturopath Kylie Cloney sorts through the facts

You're standing in front of 300 people about to deliver a speech. You’re feeling confident but a little nervous. Your name is called and all of a sudden your heart starts to beat uncontrollably.

You're sure everyone in the room can hear it. You're palms get sweaty, hands and voice become weak and shaky and your body is giving you the signals to go to the bathroom…ASAP! What you are feeling is a natural, involuntary physical response to stress. Once the speech is over and after a short recovery you should begin to feel like your normal self again. 

Remember that feeling of nervousness just before the speech and imagine feeling like that on and off, every day. Completely out of control. This is a reality for many people living with anxiety. The feeling of being overwhelmed at the thought of just getting through a day or having to see people can take control.

Anxiety is a generalised term used to describe a feeling of worry or nervous unease. In fact, the word ‘anxiety’ means ‘to vex or trouble’. In Australia, anxiety is ranked higher than any other mental illness with 12 per cent of females and 7.1 per cent of themale population diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

Life has its challenges, and with them comes stress to our emotional and physical bodies. Be it deadlines, money, relationships, grief, work or family, each of us has our own unique tolerance and reaction to stress. However, once a stressful situation is removed from our life we should return to our normal emotional and physical operations. If symptoms persist far beyond a stressful event, where you continue to worry and stress with no specific source, then you may be suffering from anxiety.

Anxiety symptoms vary in frequency and intensity depending on each individual. Symptoms can be divided into physical, psychological and behavioural categories.

  • Physical symptoms: Sweating, tight chest, short of breath, muscle pain, headaches, fatigue, heart palpitations, dizziness, abdominal discomfort and loose stools.
  • Psychological symptoms: Irritable, angry, poor concentration and memory, feeling disconnected from the body and cut off from reality, worry, mind chatter, teary and emotionally sensitive.
  • Behavioural symptoms: Clinging to people for reassurance. Withdrawal from people and social situations. A need for structure and control.

Your doctor or health practitioner may diagnose an anxiety disorder if symptoms persist longer than a six-month period with no known stress factor that if removed, would improve the symptoms.

Many capable and successful people suffer from anxiety disorder. People who have high expectations of themselves and achieve greatness are often among these. The high drive can lead to living a life of constant pressure and stress, which may flip to anxiety as the years tick.

Anxiety disorders are prevalent among famous people with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Goldie Hawn, Johnny Depp and Oprah Winfrey facing the challenges of anxiety disorders in their personal lives. A high drive combined with stress can lead to overstimulation of the nervous system and adrenal glands (fight/flight response) causing physical changes to our delicate body chemistry. 

Despite popular belief, sometimes dealing with anxiety is not just a matter of ‘having a cup of concrete and toughening up’. There are multiple factors that trigger anxiety; sometimes persistent ongoing stress is a trigger, sometimes shock or trauma, negative thought patterns or beliefs, or physical imbalance in the body. The chicken or the egg debate rears its head when anxiety is concerned. Stressful events can cause a cascade of emotions leading to hormonal and chemical changes in the body.  One such change is altered levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter hormone in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for helping us to feel okay with the world, having confidence and happiness. If serotonin levels are imbalanced, anxiety may manifest in your life. So, it’s not all in your mind.

There are often physical imbalances linked with anxiety. Does the stressful event/s and anxiety come first leading to the physical changes, or was there originally a physical imbalance that has resulted in developing anxiety? Chicken and egg again. Either way, treatment of anxiety disorders should include both the chicken and the egg that is holistic in correcting the emotional, mental and physical factors involved.

Next: Find out how to deal with anxiety in 10 steps.

Or read more health articles.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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