Chronic levels of anxiety are often experienced as a recurring fear of future events which often takes precedence over everything else in your life. It goes beyond the normal feeling of fear and amplifies it into a daily obsession into thinking of hypothetical risks. To an extent we all have experienced mild to moderate levels of anxiety in our lives. Often we can trace this to a specific stressful event in our lives, which when leading up to that point we were afraid to confront it without thinking over every angle.
Prolonged feelings of anxiety lead to the development of the following anxiety disorders:
- GAD (generalised anxiety disorder)
- Social Anxiety
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
It is my aim to to walk you through all of these mental illnesses and give concrete examples. So in this blog we will begin with “Generalised Anxiety Disorder”.
If you can imagine the last time you were in a very stressful situation, such as delivering a presentation or sitting an exam; try and see if you can recall how you felt, what you thought and how your body reacted. For most people, they would have sweaty palms, a rigid/fidgety posture, feelings of unease in the stomach (“butterflies in your stomach” sensation) and perhaps there may be thoughts of what could go wrong in this situation. Now imagine experiencing these symptoms daily. This is what it is like for someone experiencing anxiety.
Now imagine anxiety getting progressively worse and worse… The result? Generalised anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder include feeling frightened or in a state of panic all the time. You may also experience some symptoms of depression such as: lack of concentration, tiredness and irritability. Sleeping and eating difficulties may also be a recurring issue. Physically you might have heart palpitations, dry mouth, trembling, faintness and you may experience stomach cramps or diarrhoea. Often these symptoms occur without a particular trigger in mind. It is as if every small threat or issue is magnified, leading to the individual feeling restlessness and eventually frustration from not being able to fully be at rest or at peace.
If we look at the biological causes of stress, the hormone responsible for triggering the fight or flight response in the body is called cortisol. This hormone prepares the body to act when under stress through increasing heart rate, supplying glucose to the muscles, reducing inflammation in the body and so on. When this hormone is produced too much, this can lead to harmful effects on the body; such as: a lower immune system, increased risk of heart disease or perhaps an increased risk of infertility later on in life. The list of symptoms goes on but the point I am making is that just from holding onto stress daily it affects your physical health as well as your mental health.
Arguably there is a relation between a person’s stress levels and their likelihood of getting anxiety. The transition from stress to anxiety would typically occur when someone holds onto feeling stressed for too long. Feeling stressed isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it primes us to respond well to difficult situations, however if you can’t learn to switch off and relax when at home; this increases your likelihood of then becoming anxious. This is due to the fact when a person can’t move on mentally from a stressful situation, they start to dwell on this event. The more they think and focus on this memory, it will trigger thoughts in relation to a similar future event such as:
- “What if the next time I go to work, I get fired?”
- “What if I go into debt?”
- “What if my car gets towed? And so on…
This person will then come to the conclusion that they need to become prepared for all eventualities. They will always feel on edge from a past mishap or bad experience and use this as a motive to always feel like they always have to be alert, otherwise that bad experience will happen again. Therefore, when an individual experiences more stressful situations, an anxious individual will try to prevent that situation from happening again through anticipating threats. In this effort, of trying to predict the future outcomes and minimise risk, the individual may keep dwelling on the future searching for hidden threats and hence they imagine threats which are unlikely to happen in reality. During this process, of trying to predict the future and perceive real threats as well as imagined threats; the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight or flight response) does not discriminate between the two and is hence stimulated even more. Therefore, even though the person has the best of intentions at heart in trying to be prepared, they end up physically and mentally draining themselves. They start to believe that worrying is the only way to cope with difficult life situations and cannot escape this self-destructive cycle.
What I have shown here, is a short summary of how the average person transitions into generalised anxiety disorder. Generally we all do experience stress daily, and its important we can keep a healthy work-life balance. We need to work smart rather than work hard. As long as we can take care of ourselves and make our mental well-being a priority, this should lead to a healthier and more peaceful lifestyle. That being said, this advice will only apply for low to moderate levels of anxiety. So in the case of someone who experiences generalised anxiety disorder, there is usually a deep traumatic event that has spurred this on. Typically if an individual experiences this early on in childhood then it is clearly due to a general lack of feeling safe and secure at home. We may often mirror habits from our parents too, so if they prefer to worry then children will likely pick up on this habit too. Where trauma and abuse is involved this can lead to more serious forms of anxiety disorders which require a lot of treatment to resolve. This is what I hope to tackle in the next blog.
All the best,