Anxiety

Last updated 03 May 2017 — Last reviewed 10 March 2014

Fear and anxiety are normal emotions that help alert us to, protect us from, and cause us to deal with danger. This is healthy! What is not healthy and not good for us is when these feelings become excessive, irrational, ongoing, distressing or interfere with daily life. Then they are a problem, a common one, as one in four women will have some type of anxiety in her lifetime. Anxiety can be managed using interventions and strategies such as cognitive behaviour therapy, relaxation and mindfulness. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling of nervousness, apprehension, distress and fear that something bad is happening or about to happen. You can feel anxious without necessarily having an anxiety disorder. If you would like to know if what you are experiencing is worry, anxiety or an anxiety disorder, visit our dedicated anxiety website Anxiety: learn, think, do.

Psychologist Dr Mandy Deeks explains the difference between worry and anxiety.

Types of anxiety

There are different types of anxiety disorders and anxiety sufferers often have symptoms of more than one type.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

Description Signs and symptoms
  • GAD involves excessive, irrational and persistent anxiety or worry over common issues (eg family, work, finances or illness)
  • This worry is out of proportion to the circumstances causing it
  • GAD can decrease the ability to do even the most basic everyday activities
  • Excessive worry that is difficult to control
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Difficulty sleeping or unsatisfying sleep

 

Panic disorder

Description Signs and symptoms

A panic disorder occurs when the body's normal anxiety response to feared situations is not working properly and you:

  • Experience frequent, unexpected panic attacks
  • Have a persistent concern about having more panic attacks
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Feeling like you might faint
  • Sudden intense feeling of terror
  • Feeling like you are going to lose control
  • Feeling like a catastrophe is about to happen

Phobias

Description Signs and symptoms
  • A phobia develops when a specific fear becomes excessive or interferes with daily life
  • Phobias can develop from more common fears of spiders, airplanes, visits to the dentist, and social phobia
  • Social phobia is a fear of being embarrassed or judged negatively in social situations

People who suffer from phobias:

  • avoid the feared situation
  • show obvious signs of distress at confronting it

People with social phobia may fear activities where attention could be drawn to them, such as:

  • speaking in public
  • meeting new people
  • being watched whilst doing something
Panic attacks may be an indicator that your fear of something has turned into a phobia.

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Description Signs and symptoms

PTSD can occur following a traumatic event – the event usually involves the person reacting with intense fear, horror or helplessness to actual or threatened death or injury. These events can include:

  • car accidents
  • natural disasters
  • violence
  • assault
  • abuse
  • being diagnosed with a life threatening illness
  • Nightmares, flashbacks or constant distressing thoughts relating to the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of anything that triggers memories of the event
  • Increased anxiety, irritability or anger
  • Feeling emotionally withdrawn, sad or detached
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Description Signs and symptoms
OCD occurs when a person cannot stop their obsessive thoughts followed by their compulsive behaviours.

Feeling compelled to act in a certain way to ease the anxiety caused by these thoughts, for example:

  • cleaning something over and over again
  • needing to do the same task a number of times
Whilst acting out these compulsions may temporarily relieve the anxiety of the sufferer, people with OCD often become quite distressed by the way they behave, and in time, without professional help, this anxiety develops into a disorder.

Are some people more vulnerable to problem anxiety?

A variety of things can make you more at risk of developing an anxiety disorder and feeling more anxious than normal. These include:

  • high stress levels
  • being physically tired or run-down
  • certain personality traits
  • experiencing lots of change
  • physical or emotional trauma
  • family history

People who experience problem anxiety are also at an increased risk of developing depression.

Some people think their high anxiety is normal and that it's just their personality. Unfortunately this often means they don't seek professional help where a lot could be done to ease their symptoms.

 
Management & treatment of anxiety

Medications similar to those used to treat depression may be recommended as a short–term solution. Studies have shown psychological therapies are more effective in the long–term.

The following is a list of strategies or interventions recommended for the management and treatment of anxiety.

Strategy

How it works

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

CBT is a psychological approach designed to help you:

  • understand the thoughts and behaviours contributing to your disorder
  • change negative thoughts into more useful ones
  • acquire coping strategies to better manage your anxiety
Challenging the way you think

To change the way you think, try to:

  • keep a diary to see what triggers your negative or irrational thoughts
  • challenge these thoughts by acknowledging they are not the whole story, they are the negative bits only
  • practise replacing the negative thoughts with more positive, supportive statements

Relaxation

When you are anxious, your body and mind become tense so releasing physical and mental tension can lower your anxiety. It is worth trying:

  • deep, slow breathing
  • controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation
  • yoga, tai chi or meditation
  • listening to relaxing music
  • having a massage or a relaxing bath
  • taking time out to do something just for you
Healthy lifestyle

It helps to:

  • eat a healthy diet including fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain foods and plenty of calcium. calcium is a critical chemical involved in the release of neurotransmitters, chemicals that serve as messengers between cells within the nervous system
  • move as much as you can – aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity over the day to stimulate endorphins (feel good hormones) in the brain as these can improve your mood and help you cope with stress
  • reduce your consumption of alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants because they can:
    • increase agitation
    • reduce sleep quality
    • interfere with any prescribed medications

Do your research

In order to overcome your anxiety it is important you understand the condition itself. Learning about why you are behaving in this way can help you understand yourself and assist in overcoming this problem.
Seek support

Getting support is a big step towards taking control of your anxiety. Look for support from someone you feel comfortable with, such as a:

  • doctor and/or psychologist
  • friend or family member
  • support group
For those experiencing social phobia, finding online support groups may be less daunting.

When to seek help

If fear and anxiety are interfering with your ability to function and enjoy day-to-day life, it is time to do something about it.

The most important thing to remember is that avoidance will only make anxiety worse – even though it may be difficult, you need to face your anxieties, seek support for the symptoms and distress you are feeling and develop strategies for coping.

Medicare rebates are available for up to ten counselling sessions with a psychologist under a Mental Health Care Plan. Talk to your doctor about how to access these.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at March 2014.

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