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Anxiety - are we becoming a nation of sufferers?

The number of anxiety sufferers is rapidly increasing. According to research released this week by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), nearly half of the population of Britain feel more anxious now than they ever used to. But what exactly is anxiety? And why is it having such an effect on us?

The UK charity MHF published its 'Living with Anxiety' report on Monday, highlighting the alarming rise of anxiety in Britain. Of the 2,300 people surveyed, nearly one in five people claimed to feel anxious most of the time, with many of them admitting to feeling anxious on a daily basis. 

This alarming statistic illustrates that the mental health condition is starting to infiltrate our daily lives, with the study showing work pressures, finance and looking after loved ones to be the most common roots of our worry.

The report marked the launch of a major new campaign, which coincided with Mental Health Awareness Week, to help raise awareness and understanding of anxiety and its potentially debilitating effect on our mental health and wellbeing. But with so many of us claiming to be experiencing high levels of anxiety, how can we tell when our normal worries are progressing into symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

What is anxiety?

Dr Paul McLaren, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, explains that “it’s important to recognise that anxiety is part of normal experience and it’s a protective mechanism that we all have. If we didn’t have anxiety then we wouldn’t function well. The boundary between anxiety that’s helpful and anxiety that’s unhelpful is becoming hazy.”

The line between anxiety disorder and worry is becoming blurred for more and more people. We’ll mention sources of anxiety as anything from missing our alarm in the morning to making sure we arrive at the airport four hours too early. If so many of us are saying we are anxious, but how do we know when it’s becoming something a little more serious?

How do you know when you are developing anxiety?

Feeling nervous can hit us at any point, but how do we distinguish between everyday, legitimate worries and worries that suggest you may need to seek proper help? Dr Paul McLaren explains: “If you’re starting to worry about circumstances and things happening that don’t seem to be appropriate to the context and that someone in a similar situation wouldn’t worry about in that kind of way, then it’s probably becoming illness anxiety.”

He goes on to say that the worry is getting out of hand “if it is becoming very difficult to concentrate, and you’re finding it difficult to settle, then when you start to try to address the worries you find another one pops up. So you end up worrying about something else. This can be a clear indication of an anxiety disorder.”

Although anxiety is a natural human emotion, experiencing high levels of anxiety for a prolonged period of time can often tip over into diagnosable anxiety disorders such as anxiety attacks, panic attacks, phobias and obsessive behaviours. It’s important to ensure you speak to a professional if you feel your anxiety is getting out of hand.

Scared to recognise the problem of anxiety

According to the MHF, the stigma associated with mental health continues to prevent people from seeking help. More than one in four agreed that feeling anxious is a sign of not being able to cope and 29% say they would be embarrassed to tell someone they have anxiety.

The stigma surrounding people with anxiety is something that Jonathan, 18, a long term sufferer of anxiety, has experienced. He told us: “I found it [my anxiety] really difficult to tell anyone about. Even to this day I still find it a really awkward topic to speak to someone about face to face. Throughout my whole life it’s sort of been brushed off, because I never really understood it. I always have that fear in the back of my mind that they probably won’t understand, or think I’m making it up or something like that.”

He went on to describe how he developed his own methods of coping when he first started with anxiety in primary school telling us that “as I didn’t really tell them [teachers] about it, when I had panic attacks I just learnt to power through it."

"That’s the problem with anxiety”, he added, “it can get really brushed off, because it is all in your head.” This lack of sympathy and comprehension seems prevalent in the UK, and Jonathan told us “that’s what is probably the worst thing about it”. Anxiety is an invisible problem. “Since there is nothing to show anyone that you have anxiety…they just sort of have to take your word for it.”

Living with Anxiety

Jonathan’s experiences were echoed in the 'Living with Anxiety' report, which revealed the worrying levels of potentially harmful coping strategies adopted by many people. Only 7% of people said they would visit their GP to help cope with feelings of anxiety, while a quarter said they comfort ate and nearly one in five admitted to 'hiding away from the world'.

Dr McLaren summarised these emotional response mechanisms by explaining: “I think there is a lot of shame associated with anxiety and depression. We are more used to thinking of shame with depression but it does certainly happen with anxiety as well.”  

He puts his finger on the sense of confusion felt by many sufferers, when they feel they have no valid reason to worry: “People think “well what on earth have I got to be worrying about … my circumstances are good, I’ve got a good life, a home, I’m safe so why am I so frightened?”, and that’s the point, that’s what makes it an illness – you’re frightened when there isn’t anything to justify it. It is something that is not easy to switch off.”

There are many ways you can help and support someone with anxiety; just taking the time to talk to them and listen to their problems can have a very positive effect. We asked Jonathan and Dr McLaren for their suggestions. Jonathan said: “I’d say the number one thing is to have patience because a lot of times when people have panic attacks people say things like "snap out of it" and "there’s nothing wrong with you". This is hugely detrimental because what that person doesn’t realise is that they are embedding those types of phrases into the person’s mind, which is making it worse.”

Dr McLaren added: “I think recognising and acknowledging it as a serious problem [is important], so not just saying “pull yourself together”, “come on, why can’t you face it” but accepting and helping them to get help. I always find it useful to see someone who is having panic attacks with their partner, family member or friend, so then they know what helps, they know what to say when the person starts to have a panic attack and rather than getting caught up in it and swept away in the anxiety, they will be able to have a stabilising and supportive influence."

What can you do to cope with anxiety?

If you find your anxiety is getting out of hand, Priory can provide you with further assistance with anxiety treatment. In the meantime, Dr McLaren suggests these seven coping mechanisms to help ease your anxiety:

  1. Ensure you allow time for relaxation, hobbies and having fun
  2. Try to avoid rushing, doing too much at once or being too competitive
  3. Make sure you get enough sleep at night and take regular exercise
  4. Avoid smoking
  5. Limiting your intake of caffeine-based drinks and alcohol can help reduce anxiety
  6. Avoid cannabis and other illegal drugs
  7. Try making a 'problem list'. Then try and tackle the things on it one by one, rather than allowing yourself to be overwhelmed
  8. Ask yourself, “what's the worst thing that can happen”?

Blog reviewed by Dr Paul McLaren (MBBS, FRCPsych, MA, BA, MSc), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove

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