WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Anxiety is a natural response of our body which helps us cope with different situations, such as, escaping a danger or reacting promptly to an attack also called fight or flight response. Anxiety should not be considered as something harmful, but in many cases it ensures our survival.
Anxiety, when well balanced, helps us perform to the best of our ability in many contexts, such as, a working/studying environment or in a sports competition. In the example of a public speech, moderate levels of anxiety make us able to use our resources in order to handle the pressure, be energetic, prompt and focused. However, when anxiety reaches extreme levels, it can cause some uncomfortable side-effects and prevent us from leading a normal life: it is the case of anxiety disorders, which may require professional help.
HOW TO RECOGNISE ANXIETY?
Anxiety Disorders can manifest in different forms: some of them are very acute with intense physiological symptoms that resolve in few minutes, as in the case of a panic attack; some are more mild and persistent as in the case of Generalised Anxiety Disorder; others can be situational/ stimulus-related, such as phobias. Despite all these differences, there are common symptoms typical of anxiety.
Physical symptoms often include: fatigue, rapid heart-beating, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.
Psychological symptoms of anxiety include: feeling worried and negative; feeling tired, unable to concentrate, feeling irritable, sleeping badly, feeling depressed. Such persistent worries might make the person avoid or escape certain situations or make her/him experience a loss of control.
WHAT KIND OF SITUATIONS TRIGGER ANXIETY?
In general people feel highly anxious in situations they don’t feel comfortable with because they might be under pressure, judged, tested, in new unfamiliar/ challenging environments or in situations they can’t easily escape from. Some examples could be an exam at university, a job interview, a public speech or even a date. However there is no situation which is an objective source of anxiety.
Anxiety is very subjective and depends on the way each person evaluates themselves and the world around them. For example, referring to the case of a public speech it could be a very anxiogenic task if the person is insecure and thinks he/she is going to fail in front of the audience, and he/she thinks that a poor or embarrassing performance will severely affect his/her social or working reputation and consequently his/her selfesteem; while another person – probably more confident – will experience the same situation as rather harmless and could even see it as an opportunity.
HOW TO DEAL WITH ANXIETY?
There are some techniques that anyone can learn and try in order to reduce anxiety symptoms or alleviate anxiety and panic attacks before things get out of control:
Relaxation techniques: W hen you are anxious your muscles tense up, so to help yourself you should try to relax your muscles. It is a technique that needs to be learnt and practised on a regularly basis in order to be effective, an example is the progressive muscles relaxation, where the person tenses some muscle groups and then releases the tension and experiences how muscles feel when relaxed. Physical activity can help you reduce excessive levels of muscular tensions. The practice of yoga, for example, could be particularly useful.
Controlling your breathing: When you are tense or anxious you may start to breathe more quickly. It can lead to more symptoms of panic such as faintness, tingling and dizziness. If breathing can be controlled during a panic attack, these symptoms can be reduced. This means breaking that vicious circle of anxiety. A useful practice is to breathe deeply and slowly, starting from your stomach.
Distraction: Distract yourself from the anxious thoughts and try to think about something else, like focusing on what is going on outside around you or on anything pleasant, funny or that will keep you occupied.
In some cases the ‘self-help’ methods aren’t sufficient and the person should consult a professional psychotherapist. The most successful clinical treatment for anxiety is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a psychotherapeutic approach aimed at changing the thoughts and appraisal underlining anxiogenic responses.
The core assumption of CBT is that our appraisal of an event determines how much significance we give to it and consequently our reaction to it; by changing the dysfunctional thoughts into more realistic and functional thoughts, the individual will benefit from a new way of approaching his environment. CBT uses also relaxation and breathing technique to help the person regulate the anxiety response.
Anxiety, in all its forms, is the most common psychological issue in the world, but just a small number of people affected ask for treatment. In some cases they might be ashamed or feel different from others because of their symptoms. Others might not be aware of anxiety characteristics and of the available treatments. Therefore more awareness about the symptoms, the way to cope with anxiety issues as well as the options available to solve the problems in few CBT sessions should encourage people to speak about it and seek for help. This can by far improve the quality of life for many of us.