Anxiety is a common human reaction to a stressful situation or event. Our body responds in very clear, physical ways to an apparent threat. Our heart beats faster, our muscles tense up, our mouth feels dry and so on. These responses are our body’s way of getting ready to meet a threat. Once the threat has passed we are usually able to carry on with our lives as normal. Some of us, however, experience very high levels of anxiety and such strong feelings of distress that we are unable to manage everyday tasks. We may find we are so anxious and edgy that we avoid situations we would usually cope with and even enjoy. It is like always living on a knife edge—the feelings of fear can seem unbearable.
I could never relax, I was tense and wound up all the time. It was hard to focus on anything else. I felt really shaky and strung out.
It can be very hard to explain how we feel to other people. Our worries may seem unreasonable and we may feel under pressure to put on a brave face and behave as other people expect. This only adds to our distress and makes us even more tense.
This form of intense anxiety is, in fact, remarkably common. Men and women of all ages and from all backgrounds can be affected by it. Each person will experience anxiety in their own particular way, but there are a number of symptoms people often describe. The way our body functions may be affected:
- tense muscles can cause headaches or pain in the neck, shoulders or back
- a dry mouth can make it hard to swallow
- we may get breathless and dizzy, or feel faint
- we may suffer from indigestion, constipation or diarrhea
- our heart may beat alarmingly quickly
- we may find it hard to concentrate on anything and become very irritable with other people
- we may experience difficulties sleeping and as a result we end up exhausted.
- We may try using caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to help us get by. This may make us feel less anxious for a time, but in the longer term we may feel even more stressed.
Some people find they experience sudden unexpected surges of anxiety. These are called ‘panic attacks’ and can be very distressing. We may worry then that there is something wrong with us physically.
Acute anxiety or panic in particular situations, is called a ‘phobia’. Often as a result we go out of our way to avoid that situation—for example being high up, being ‘trapped’ in a crowded room, seeing a spider. There is a separate leaflet on phobias which may be helpful. Anxiety can also cause us to feel increasingly depressed and hopeless. Our world is becoming more and more restricted, and it can be hard to see a way out.
If this applies to you, or someone you know, you may wish to read the separate leaflet on ‘depression’.
Sometimes a person’s anxiety leads to their feeling they must carry out certain actions again and again. This ‘compulsive behaviour’ might involve repeatedly checking that the door is locked, or endlessly cleaning the house. No matter how often we repeat the same behaviour, it never seems to quell the anxiety within us and we begin again.
The same can apply to ideas, which go round and round in our head, tormenting us, never giving us a moment’s peace.
Whatever our particular experience of anxiety, it can have a great impact on our lives. If anxiety persists, it can make it difficult to keep going at work and to maintain our relationships with friends and family.
Over time, if we continue to be anxious, our body’s resistance to infection can become weakened and we’re more likely to experience ill health. It can become a vicious circle. We worry about what is happening to us, and become more anxious and depressed.
But although we may feel we are trapped, something can be done to help. The most difficult step can be to accept there is a problem and to seek help with it.