With anxiety affecting as many as one in six of us, we spoke with Brendan Street, psychotherapist and Clinical Lead with CBT Services, about the signs of anxiety disorder and how you can treat it

What is an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is a natural response to a situation where you perceive there’s a threat of harm. The threat may be physical (such as being in a car accident) or social – for example, losing your job. Anxiety can prompt you to act to keep yourself safe; however, in a disorder, you either inflate a threat or perceive one that isn’t really there, and anxiety becomes unhelpful.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Chronic anxiety affects your emotions, so you feel fearful all the time and have continual thoughts of threat. You might have physical symptoms, including a racing heart, muscle tension and digestive problems. You may have trouble sleeping and lose your appetite, and you might drink too much alcohol in an attempt to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

How does an anxiety disorder affect your life?

A key part of anxiety is avoidance – you stay away from situations that trigger fear. For example, if you’re anxious in social situations, you may start to avoid being around other people. However, this means you don’t get the chance to learn there’s nothing to fear, so the anxiety tends to spread and may start to affect other areas of your life. Safety behaviours are another key part of an anxiety disorder. These can include only going out with someone else if you have panic disorder or seeking reassurance from doctors if you have concerns about your health. An anxiety disorder can have a huge impact on day-to-day functioning, affecting everything from work to relationships.

What types of anxiety disorders are there?

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), where you feel anxious most of the time about a range of issues.
  • Health anxiety, which centres on obsessive worrying about your wellbeing.
  • Social anxiety, an overwhelming fear of social situations.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), where you focus on a perceived flaw in your appearance and become very distressed about it.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is closely linked to anxiety disorders and occurs when recurring unwanted thoughts enter your mind, causing you to carry out behaviours to help you feel safe – for example, washing your hands all the time because of a fear of germs.
  • Panic disorder, involves recurring panic attacks. The physical symptoms associated with the anxiety response are interpreted as dangerous (for example, palpitations are seen as evidence of a heart attack), which leads to more anxiety. This can result in a vicious cycle.

All these disorders tend to overlap, so you may have, for example, symptoms of both health anxiety and BDD.

What causes anxiety disorders?

Some people may be genetically predisposed to having an exaggerated anxiety response. Anxiety can also be learned during childhood. Anxiety disorders tend to be the result of both nature and nurture.

How are anxiety disorders treated?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches you techniques, such as mindfulness, which helps you not to engage with anxious thoughts, bringing your focus to what is happening in each moment. You’ll also be taught to look at the evidence for your fears – this encourages you to form a more realistic view of your worries. CBT also helps you overcome unhelpful behaviours – for example, you’ll be encouraged to gradually expose yourself to situations that make you anxious.

What else can I do to help myself?

  • Address sleep problems  – lack of sleep can make you feel jittery and overwhelmed, so it’s harder to cope with anxiety
  • Have regular social contact
  • Exercise regularly
  • Find the right balance between work and relaxing
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol or coffee

When should I seek help?

Remember, it’s natural to feel anxious from time to time. But if anxiety persists over a prolonged period and it’s affecting your life and day-to-day functioning, see your doctor.

To find out more about anxiety disorders, click here.

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