Anxiety resembles fear, but when a person experiences fear, they know what they are afraid of - whereas anxiety is often less specific.
Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling, but severe anxiety can be extremely debilitating. Some people are more vulnerable to anxiety than others, but even those who become anxious easily can learn to manage it well.
Negative self-talk, where people always tell themselves that the worst will happen, can cause anxiety; as can stress. In fact, there are a wide range of causes and coping mechanisms; here we will explore some of the most common ones.
- Feeling anxious is normal, but it should not interfere with everyday life.
- Excessive, persistent anxiety is an issue for many people.
- There are a range of coping mechanisms and strategies to alleviate anxiety.
- Sometimes, anxiety may be diagnosed as a particular anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is a normal human feeling. It is no less normal than joy, surprise, pity, or reflection. There are a great many reasons why people feel anxious. Common reasons for feeling anxious include:
- social pressure
- work related stress
- financial difficulties
- medical worries
- drug use
- underlying medical conditions, such as heart attack
It's normal to feel some level of anxiety, dependent on circumstances. The trick to managing it is to recognize it early on, and adopt coping strategies to successfully navigate it.
As well as feeling apprehensive and worried, possibly without knowing why, some of the following physical symptoms may occur:
- tense muscles
- churning stomach
- heart palpitations
- numbness or "pins and needles" in arms, hands, or legs
- sweating or flushing
Sometimes, people mistake the symptoms of anxiety for physical illness. They become more worried that they might be suffering a heart attack or stroke. This increases anxiety.
In rare cases, anxiety may lead to a panic attack, which, while unpleasant, usually resolves within 30 minutes.
When is anxiety a problem?
Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with life, when there is no real threat, or it goes on too long after the danger has past. For example, for someone with a fear of flying, being slightly anxious before a flight is normal - if it occurs after flying, it may be a problem.
How often anxiety occurs may indicate a problem, too. If someone is experiencing excessive and persistent anxiety during everyday situations, if the feelings are out of proportion with the cause, or if worry is leading to panic attacks, it could be a sign that medical help is needed.
People may naturally avoid situations that make them anxious. This might help them feel better in the short term.
The trouble is that the anxiety keeps returning, and can spread to other situations.
Some people start avoiding everyday activities including:
- crowded places
- lectures and tutorials
- meetings and work situations
- social events
Avoidance may make someone feel better at first, but relief is only temporary. They may start worrying about what will happen next time. Every time the person avoids something, it is harder to face it next time, and they gradually want to avoid more and more things.
So while it may be effective in the short term, avoiding anxious situations does not address the underlying issue.
There are many simple ways people can cope with anxiety:
Learn to manage stress. Keep an eye on pressures and deadlines and make a commitment to take time out from study or work. Relaxation is important for anxiety reduction.
Use relaxation techniques, such as:
- breathing techniques
- physical relaxation
Keep physically well by:
- eating healthily
- getting regular exercise
- getting regular sleep
- avoiding alcohol
- avoiding cannabis
- avoiding junk food
People often feel alone when they are anxious. It can help to talk with a family member, friend, counselor, or psychologist. Other people can often help to find ways to deal with stress. Professional counselors can teach new skills for managing anxiety.
Listening to music or reading a book can help. One study suggests that reading, even for 6 minutes, can reduce stress levels by more than two-thirds. Getting involved with an activity, such as sports or some kind of voluntary service can offer a break from everyday stress.
Deep abdominal breathing
Deep abdominal breathing can help reduce anxiety. The idea is to breathe in deeply and slowly through the nose, taking the air right down to the abdomen. While doing so, the person should visualize the air traveling down to the abdomen, and say the word "calm" to themselves as they breathe.
The next step is to breathe out slowly and gently through the mouth. While breathing out, the person should visualize the stress and tension leaving the body with the breath, while thinking the word "relax." While breathing out, the muscles should be allowed deliberately to go floppy. As you exhale, try to imagine your cares, worries, and negative thoughts leaving your body with the breath. These or similar visualizations can help decrease anxiety.
It is enough to take three deep breaths at a time. Breathing deeply for too long can lead to dizziness, because of the extra oxygen taken in and exhaling too much carbon dioxide. The three breaths can be repeated after a short time of breathing normally.
Another strategy is to become aware of "negative self-talk" and replace it with "coping self-talk."
Instead of thinking negative thoughts like, "I can't do this, it's just too hard," change it to something more positive, like, "This is hard, but I can get through it."
It can be helpful to think of "changing the record" that plays through the mind. It is useful to make a list of the negative thoughts that occur frequently, and to write a list of positive, believable thoughts to replace them.
Perfectionism can lead to anxiety, because it is impossible to do everything perfectly. It is more helpful to try to do everything to the best of one's ability, and to accept that it is not possible to do everything. Asking others for help with some tasks can relieve the pressure.
Other tips suggested by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) include:
- counting to 10 slowly
- get involved, for example by becoming a volunteer
- maintain a positive attitude and welcome humor
- learn what triggers the anxiety
- talk to friends, family, or a counselor
Researchers at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom used tests and exercises to stress out participants. They then attempted to reduce stress levels using various forms of entertainment.
The results showed that:
- reading reduced stress levels by 68 percent from their highest level
- listening to music reduced them by 61 percent
- having a hot drink reduced them by 54 percent
- taking a walk reduced stress levels by 41 percent
Anxiety can be exhausting and debilitating, but strategies like these can help to reduce its impact.