What is anxiety?

What is anxiety? Types, causes and treatments

Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of nervousness, fear or apprehension about what’s to come. The first day of a new job, preparing for an exam or giving a speech may cause most people to feel temporarily tense and anxious—which is perfectly normal. However, when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, it might become a medical disorder (1).

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. 

In any one year, over 2 million Australian adults experience anxiety (2). On average, one in four people—one in three women and one in five men—will experience anxiety at some point in their life (3).

 

The types of anxiety disorders

There are several different anxiety disorders (4). These include:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder: Characterised by excessive, uncontrollable and irrational worry about everyday things, such as health, family, friends, money or career.
  • Panic disorder: Experiencing sudden and repeated panic attacks that last for several minutes or longer. A person with panic disorder may constantly fear when the next attack will occur (5).
  • Phobia: A persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an activity, object, person, animal, or situation.
  • Social anxiety disorder: The fear of negative evaluation by others in social situations (6).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Recurring irrational thoughts that compel you to perform certain rituals repeatedly, even if you don’t want to.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Anxiety after a traumatic event which can cause people to repeatedly re-live it.

It’s common for people to experience more than one of these types of anxiety at the same time.

 

What it feels like

As with the majority of health conditions, anxiety can affect all of us in different ways (7). Some people may only experience mild  – but no less serious – symptoms, whilst others succumb to debilitating illness. Some symptoms include:

  • Overthinking
  • Disturbed sleep and difficulty falling asleep
  • Clouded thinking
  • Irritability
  • Racing mind
  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Easily fatigued
  • Feelings of impending doom

Physical symptoms:

  • Churning stomach
  • Sweaty palms
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Racing heart and/or palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Trembling or twitching
  • Dry mouth
  • Pins and needles
  • Increased blood pressure

 

Causes of anxiety

Researchers are finding that a combination of factors may contribute to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder (8, 9). Possible causes include:

  • Environmental stressors: Difficulties at work, poor diet, relationship problems, or family issues (10).
  • Genetics: The tendency to develop anxiety disorders runs in families. If someone in your family has an anxiety disorder, you have a greater risk of developing one too (11, 12).
  • Medical factors: Depression and other anxiety disorders; physical health conditions, such as thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome or heart arrhythmias, and the effects of substances/medication can produce or aggravate anxiety symptoms.
  • Biochemical factors: Psychologists and neurologists define many anxiety and mood disorders as disruptions to hormones and electrical signals in the brain (13).

 

Treatments and therapies

The good news is that anxiety can be managed. 

Effective treatment helps you learn how to control your anxiety so it doesn’t control you. 

The type of treatment will depend on the type of anxiety you’re experiencing and may incorporate:

  • Lifestyle changes: Proper nutrition, regular physical exercise, getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes.
  • Herbs and supplements: Medicinal and adaptogen herbs such as bacopa, camomile and ashwagandha (withania somnifera) have long been used to counteract the negative effects of stress (14, 15). Modern research also links quality ashwagandha supplements containing a high proportion of withanolides, such as clinically-backed KSM-66®, to stress reduction, lower cortisol levels, and relief of mild anxiety (16, 17, 18, 19).
  • Psychological treatments: Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), behaviour therapy and e-therapies.
  • Anxiety management strategies: Meditation, stress management, slow breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and positive thinking.
  • Medical treatments: Anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants and beta-blockers may help relieve symptoms.

There are many ways to treat anxiety and people should work with their health practitioner to choose the treatment that is best for them.

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