What is anxiety?

A few of the things that prevent people from seeking help for mental health issues, appear to me to be simple misunderstandings or misperceptions.  Here are some of these which my clients have described to me include:

“Oh, it’s not that bad.  I mean everyone feels this… don’t they?”
“It’s just stress.  It will go away.”
“I just need to ignore it.  I’m going to distract myself and I’ll be fine.”
“But I’ve started going to the gym and watching what I eat.  Why hasn’t this feeling go away?”
“Mum told me I’m fine. I’ll get over it”
“There is no such thing as stress, just weak people. I just need to work harder”

I could go on.  In fact, I could go on and on and on.  But you can see why nearly half of all anxiety-related disorders in Australia go untreated.   So without just re-writing the diagnostic manuals (which are already freely available on the internet), I’m hoping to give you a clear and realistic insight into the things that clinicians look for when we are working with acute stress and anxiety in our clients. 

First things first.

Stress and anxiety have an easily noticeable set of biological symptoms BUT they vary from person to person in terms of which symptoms are most obvious and distressing. You may notice:

  • Rapid and pronounced beating of your heart – similar to the sensation you get after sprinting hard for 100m, but usually without the panting.
  • AND/OR Sweaty palms and/or sweaty armpits – and you haven’t been exercising.
  • AND/OR A weird feeling in your stomach or your bladder like you need to rush to the toilet even though you just went.
  • AND/OR A noticeably dry mouth.
  • AND/OR A surreal sensation that you are watching the situation either through a veil or from a distance. Feeling very prickly hot. 
  • AND/OR Feeling that parts of your body are numb and cold.

While these are only a few of the physical correlates, they each feel quite uncomfortable (to say the least!), and almost every one of us wants to be rid of these types of feelings as quickly as possible. The next thing to be aware of is not about the body, but what you may notice in your thoughts.  For example:

  • A surreal sense that a gauzy veil of fabric has dropped in front of you. 
  • AND/OR Feeling disconnected or somehow outside of the situation that you are in.
  • AND/OR Your mind is buzzing with thoughts, which are sometimes argumentative.
  • AND/OR A very real sense of being overwhelmed and unable to manage the task/situation/person in front of you. 
  • AND/OR Feeling indecisive and frozen.
  • AND/OR Noticing a strong sense of dread.

Finally, the next thing we use to understand our clients’ distress basically comes down to the frequency with which these sensations arise, and the settings within which they arise. 

Let me better explain this.

We could make a rational assumption that most people will experience some form of worry just before an exam or a performance. If this only happens before exams or performances, then we could more than likely categorize symptoms as a completely understandable stress response.  Understandable does not mean, however, that we couldn’t then work on different ways of perceiving that exam or performance so that its impact is less distressing to us.

Or what about that colleague at work who always seems to find just the perfect way of teasing us or preventing us from doing our job well?  After this interaction has gone on for long enough, we may notice a range of thoughts and physical symptoms that cause us to dread going to work.  Again, this is an understandable stress response to a defined situation and person. While understandable, seeking support and assistance from an expert can help to find ways of either addressing the situation or managing the distressing feelings.

There are, however, those times when there do not seem to be any particular reasons for the strong thoughts and physical sensations.  In these cases, the sense of anxiety can be confusing and make us feel powerless or out of control. Even when there do not appear to be any specific triggers, the presence of distress should not go unnoticed.  There are a number of tools and strategies that clinicians can use to improve our experience.

Even though I’ve given a few different examples, please please do not self-diagnose!!  There is no real value in the whole Dr. Google thing that so many of us do – and I say this with not an ounce of judgment because we are all human and we all do it.  Instead, grab some paper and a pencil and write down what you notice in your body, what you notice in your thoughts, and identify any situations, things, or people that may be provoking these feelings.  If your answers don’t make sense to you, then take that list to your GP or psychologist and seek assistance using their expertise.