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What is anxiety?

Although some anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation, when the anxiety level is too high a person may not come up with an effective way of managing the stressful or threatening situation. They might "freeze", avoid the situation, or even fear they may do something that is out of character.

Anxiety generally causes people to experience the following responses:

  • An intense physical response due to arousal of the nervous system leading to physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat.
  • A cognitive response which refers to thoughts about the situation and the person's ability to cope with it. For someone experiencing high anxiety this often means interpreting situations negatively and having unhelpful thoughts such as "This is really bad" or "I can't cope with this".
  • A behavioural response which may include avoidance or uncharacteristic behaviour including aggression, restlessness or irrational behaviour such as repeated checking.
  • An emotional response reflecting the high level of distress the person is experiencing.

What causes anxiety?

There is no one cause of high anxiety. Rather, there are a number of factors that may contribute to the development of anxious thoughts and behaviour. Some causes of anxiety are listed below.

Hereditary factors
Research has shown that some people with a family history of anxiety are more likely (though not always) to also experience anxiety.
Biochemical factors
Research suggests that people who experience a high level of anxiety may have an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that regulate feelings and physical reactions. Medication that helps to correct this imbalance can relieve some symptoms of anxiety in some people.
Life experiences
Certain life experiences can make people more susceptible to anxiety. Events such as a family break-up, abuse, ongoing bullying at school, and workplace conflict can be stress factors that challenge a person's coping resources and leave them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety.
Personality style
Certain personality types are more at risk of high anxiety than others. People who have a tendency to be shy, have low self-esteem, and a poor capacity to cope are more likely to experience high levels of anxiety.
Thinking styles
Certain thinking styles make people more at risk of high anxiety than others. For instance, people who are perfectionistic or expect to be in constant control of their emotions are more at risk of worrying when they feel stress.
Behavioural styles
Certain ways of behaving also place people at risk of maintaining high anxiety. For instance, people who are avoidant are not likely to learn ways of handling stressful situations, fears and high anxiety.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The experience of anxiety will vary from person to person. Central features of anxiety include ongoing worry or thoughts that are distressing and that interfere with daily living. In addition to worry or negative thinking, symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Confusion
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Faintness/dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Avoidance behaviour
  • Irritability

How is anxiety treated?

Psychological treatment, particularly cognitive-behaviour therapy, has been found to be very effective in the treatment of anxiety. Cognitive behaviour therapy is made up of two components. The first component, cognitive therapy, is one of the most common and well supported treatments for anxiety. It is based on the idea that a person's thoughts in response to an event or situation causes the difficult feelings and behaviours (i.e., it is often not an event that causes distress but a person's interpretation of that event). The aim of cognitive therapy is to help people to identify unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns, which are often automatic, negative and irrational, and replace them with more positive and helpful ways of thinking. The second component of cognitive-behaviour therapy involves assistance with changing behaviours that are associated with anxiety, such as avoidance or restlessness. These may be dealt with through learning relaxation techniques and through changes in the way that certain situations are handled.

Other treatments used to address anxiety include medication and making lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise, reducing caffeine and other dietary changes.

Your general practitioner or psychologist will be able to provide you with more information on these treatment options.

Other resources on anxiety

Anxiety disorders

For some people the feeling of high anxiety can become severe and interfere with their functioning, making it difficulty for them to cope with normal daily demands. If this high anxiety persists over a long period of time an anxiety disorder may be diagnosed. Almost 30 per cent of the population will experience some form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. A range of anxiety disorders can be diagnosed depending on the symptoms experienced. People with an anxiety problem can frequently experience a number of specific anxiety disorders at the same time. If a person is concerned about having an anxiety disorder it is important to seek professional help to determine the best form of treatment to manage the anxiety.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder. This disorder involves persistent and excessive worry, often about daily situations like work, family or health, with associated physical symptoms. This worry can be difficult to control, leading to problems in concentration, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.

Specific phobia. People with a specific phobia experience extreme anxiety and fear if exposed to a particular feared object or situation. Common phobias include fear of flying, spiders and other animals, heights or small spaces.

Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder occurs when a person has sudden surges of overwhelming fear that come without warning. These panic attacks often only last a few minutes, but repeated episodes may continue to occur.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In OCD a person has repeated, upsetting thoughts called obsessions (e.g., "there are germs everywhere"). To make these thoughts go away, the person will often perform certain behaviours, called compulsions, over and over again (e.g., repeated hand washing). These compulsions can take over a person's life and while people with OCD usually know that their obsessions and compulsions are an over-reaction, they can't stop them.

Social Anxiety Disorder. In Social Anxiety Disorder the person has severe anxiety about being criticised or negatively evaluated by others. This leads to the person avoiding social events and being afraid of doing something that leads to embarrassment or humiliation.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can occur after exposure to a frightening and traumatic event. People with PTSD re-experience the traumatic event through memories and/or dreams, they tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event, and are extremely sensitive to normal life experiences that are associated with the event.

Seeking professional assistance

If you believe that your anxiety is a problem you can seek help from a clinical psychologist. A clinical psychologist is trained to assess anxiety and to help the person to better understand and manage anxiety by developing effective coping strategies and techniques. A clinical psychologist can also help a person to manage other problems that may be associated with the anxiety, such as depression, stress or personal relationships.


From anxiety tip sheet, APS

 

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