What is anxiety?
When people perceive a threat, they actively assess the situation both automatically and outside consciousness to find an effective way to respond to the situation. They develop predictions based on past exposure with the same or similar threat.
It is unavoidable that some anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation, but when the anxiety level is too high, people cannot think of an effective way to manage the stressful situation. They might “freeze”, avoid the situation (flight) or even fear they may not be in control of the situation (fright).
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
The experience of anxiety will vary from person to person. Central features of anxiety include ongoing worry or thoughts that are distressing and that interfere with daily living. In addition to worry or negative thinking, symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Upset stomach or nausea
Causes of anxiety
There are a number of factors that may make someone susceptible to anxious thoughts and behaviours:
Hereditary: some research shows that some people may have a family history of anxiety.
Biochemical factors: Some people may have an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that regulate feelings and physical reactions. Medication can help to gain relief from the anxiety symptoms.
Life events such as divorce, abuse, conflict can act as stress factors.
Personality types: people who are shy, those who have low self-esteem and a poor capacity to cope are more likely to experience high levels of anxiety.
Thinking styles: people who are perfectionists or controlling are at greater risk of worrying when they feel stress.
Behavioural styles: people who use avoidance fail to learn effective ways to cope with difficult situations and tend to worry.
How can a psychologist help you?
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT is a psychological treatment approach that is made up of two components. The first component, cognitive therapy, is one of the most common and well supported treatments for anxiety. It is based on the idea that a person’s thoughts in response to an event or situation causes the difficult feelings and behaviours (i.e. it is often not an event that causes distress but a person’s interpretation of that event). The aim of cognitive therapy is to help people to identify unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns, which are often automatic, negative and irrational, and replace them with more positive and helpful ways of thinking.
The second component of cognitive-behaviour therapy is behaviour therapy which aims to modify unhelpful behaviours that are associated with anxiety, such as avoidance or restlessness. These may be dealt with through learning relaxation techniques and through changes in the way that certain situations are handled.
Brain-based therapies involve understanding the anxiety response from a neuroscience perspective and how it affects you.
Other treatments used to address anxiety include medication and making lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise, reducing caffeine and other dietary changes.
Your general practitioner or psychologist will be able to provide you with more information on these treatment options.