This World Mental Health Day (10th October), we’re turning our attention to the 8 million people in the UK living with anxiety disorders. Could you be one of them? Find out what you can do when it all gets too much…
‘Everyone becomes anxious occasionally, but most people are able to handle those feelings, and they usually pass,’ says Dr Chris Williams, professor of psychosocial psychiatry at the University of Glasgow and a patron of charity Anxiety UK.
‘However, there are times when we can find it hard to get back a normal perspective. The economic climate may play a role as anxiety rises at times of economic stress. If you’re feeling extremely anxious a lot of the time, worrying about your health, your appearance, or the safety of loved ones and these concerns rumble away in the background constantly, then you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.’
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
Sometimes called free-floating anxiety. This is when you are alert to ‘threats’ everywhere, and turn things over in your mind constantly. This includes what you have or haven’t done, and what people think of you. You may ‘catastrophise’ – if your partner isn’t answering his phone, you fear he’s had an accident.
Anxiety builds and you fear something terrible is about to happen – right now. You feel you might collapse, pass out, go mad, wet yourself, have a stroke, a heart attack, suffocate, faint or even die. The fears mean you stop what you’re doing and avoid being in the same situation again, whether that’s shopping or going on a bus.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
You become preoccupied with a perceived ‘defect’ in your appearance. You may think you have a misshapen nose, for example, and become very anxious about it, perhaps avoiding other people because you feel self-conscious, checking your appearance in the mirror repeatedly, trying to disguise the ‘defect’ with make-up or even going as far as seeking cosmetic surgery.
You have a fear of having a serious illness, such as cancer, dementia, multiple sclerosis or AIDS. You may be totally focused on obtaining a diagnosis and seek repeated tests and scans, reading up about the illness and misinterpreting the physical symptoms of anxiety as signs of disease. And if you do have an illness and have health anxiety, the worry might have a larger impact on your life than the disease itself.
Specific social situations can cause intense worry, because you fear you are going to be the centre of attention or humiliate yourself. The situations that trigger anxiety can be meeting new people, chatting socially, public speaking, going to parties, using public toilets or eating out, and you may go out of your way to avoid these situations.
Escaping the trap
Talk to your doctor if you relate to the symptoms of anxiety described here, so that they can work with you to discover what is wrong and whether it is appropriate to refer you for therapy, although you may also be prescribed a course of medication in the form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Many people have been helped immensely by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you to be more comfortable with a degree of uncertainty. It also teaches you relaxation techniques to bring down your overall anxiety levels, and encourages you to become more outward-looking and get involved in life again. Some people make a full recovery from anxiety disorders with CBT, and it can almost always be reduced to a much lower level so that you can get on with your life again.
Healthy also recommends:
Probiotics: Research from McMaster University, Canada, has linked low levels of gut bacteria to anxiety, suggesting probiotics may help ease it.
Passionflower and magnesium: A review of studies from California’s Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation found these supplements may be effective in lessening anxiety symptoms.
5-HTP supplements raise serotonin levels, which may have a positive effect on anxiety, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Mindfulness meditation in which you learn to distance yourself from your thoughts – could be helpful in relieving GAD, according to US research from the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, Massachusetts General Hospital.
For further help:
Anxiety UK – for support and information about anxiety disorders.
British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies – to find a therapist who practises CBT.
MIND – for info about anxiety disorders.