What is anxiety?

Anxiety problems are the commonest mental health disorders, with some surveys showing that a third of people suffer with anxiety at some point in their lives. Anxiety is a feeling of fear and distress. It is a normal physical response of your body when faced with severe stress, or danger. However, it becomes a disorder if it is there all the time, or if it becomes so intense that it interferes with your life.

Anxiety is shown by different people in different ways and it can therefore have different patterns. If it is present all of the time it is described as Generalised Anxiety, as opposed to Panic Attacks – which are intense bouts of anxiety, often without an obvious trigger event, whereas some people develop Phobias – where particular fearful situations lead to their anxiety.

Anxiety is also very common element in many other mental health disorders. It is a prominent feature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive disorder. People suffering with depression often experience times of anxiety, and suffering with anxiety can lead to depression.

What causes anxiety?

It is often hard to find one particular cause; though many people seem to have a tendency towards anxiety due to  their family history and upbringing. However, there is also some research that seems to show that there is a genetic element as well. For some, a life experience of an anxiety provoking event may lead to the onset of the disorder and often people talk about a distressing event that led to their first episode of anxiety, but how then other episodes of anxiety followed, so that it almost seems to take on a life of its own. Using some drugs such as caffeine, or other stimulants such as cocaine or ecstasy, can definitely make us feel more anxious,

Some Common features of Generalised anxiety

Mental features

  • Worrying all the time
  • Feeling stressed / irritable
  • Struggling to concentrate, forgetting things
  • Poor sleep

Physical sensations

  • Rapid breathing
  • Fast / strong heartbeats
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Muscle tension / pains
  • Dizziness / Faintness
  • Indigestion, poor appetite, diarrhoea.

Some Common features of Panic attacks

  • Comes on suddenly and is very intense
  • An overwhelming sense of fear
  • Feeling that you are losing control
  • Sudden onset of bodily sensations as listed as above

Some Common features of Phobias

  • Anxiety feelings come on when exposed to a fearful situation, but they reduce at other time
  • Avoidance of the anxiety provoking situation

What you need to do to get help

Getting a formal diagnosis is probably the best thing to do first. Having a full assessment from a psychiatrist will help to establish that a diagnosis of anxiety is the correct one, and exclude other mental health conditions where anxiety can be a prominent feature. With that done, a psychiatrist will then help you to think about what to do next by discussing what psychological approaches (including guided self help techniques) to anxiety problems are best suited to you.

Psychological therapies are usually the best approach, but medication also can have a benefit and, if that is something that you and the psychiatrist agree could help, he or she will advise prescribe for you as well.

Which Talking therapy?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is most commonly used for anxiety disorders, and has good evidence of benefit though other types of therapy can also be beneficial and these can be also be discussed with the psychiatrist. There are a number of books and internet resources that try to employ the same techniques as therapy, and can be very useful if people are able to use the methods on a regular basis.

What Medication?

Antidepressant medications are most usually used for anxiety disorders. Some blood pressure medications, called beta-blockers can also be used in low doses to help control some of the physical effects of anxiety. Often GPs will try this as a first step. There are also some tranquilising medications which can be prescribed for anxiety, usually benzodiazepines (such as diazepam).  Although they can be useful in extreme situations, they are not recommended as treatment for anxiety as they can lead to problems with dependency.

Do these treatments work?

The short answer is yes. Getting “better” is always the goal. The good news is that it is not only possible, it is very likely that you will do so, especially if you get proper professional help. Will it go away completely? For some people, with time and effort, definitely. For most it will recede in importance and cease to be a disorder, more of a tendency; a danger of relapse will always remain for some, but, as long as you have developed the techniques and learnt to recognise the signals, it need never be the dreadfully debilitating and frighteningly restrictive condition that too many people who do not get treatment suffer from every day.

Psychiatry-UK offer confidential, professional, realtime virtual mental health advice to you or someone close to you.

Dr Steve Ilyas is a Psychiatrist with Psychiatry UK and has over 10 years experience.