It Takes Courage to Live with Anxiety
One of the symptoms my clients most commonly suffer is anxiety. In fact, I think that practically everyone I know (whether they be friends, colleagues or clients) complain of anxiety now and again. Severe anxiety is as common as depression and the WHO estimate that together they account for 40% of disability worldwide. Full blown anxiety disorders are also very common, particularly among women, and currently affect 18% of Americans and 14% of Europeans.
So what is anxiety and how does it differ from stress? For me, stress has a tangible source. We tend to know why we are stressed, whether it is due to over-work, crucial deadlines or a stressful environment. Stress can make us nervous, angry or exhausted but it can generally be reduced by tackling the root cause.
Anxiety, on the other hand, can be seemingly irrational, often having no obvious origin but can be precipitated by recent or early trauma. It is the result of adrenaline suddenly being pumped into our bodies as a ‘fight or flight’ response, enabling us to cope with a potentially threatening situation. It creates a feeling of apprehension or fear combined with physical tension. While low level anxiety can be useful by, for example, providing a welcome shot of adrenaline before an important event, overwhelming anxiety can be crippling. Anxiety may be an appropriate reaction, but it can often become overwhelming and be out of proportion to the actual danger posed. So when is anxiety normal? And when is it something to be concerned about?
Excessive anxiety interferes with coping and functioning. People can’t learn, concentrate or think when they’re very anxious. If high levels of anxiety continue unabated, the resulting tension can lead to distress and severe physical symptoms. When I feel very anxious it feels as though I’ve been kicked in the stomach. Other people commonly report shortness of breath, dry mouth, headaches, migraines, disturbed vision, loose bowels, eczema, perspiration, panic attacks etc. When these physical symptoms start to impair a person’s health and enjoyment of life, the problem needs to be tackled.
At its worst, excessive anxiety can lead to anxiety disorders with bizarre, often apparently illogical symptoms such as phobias, OCD (obsessive compulsive) patterns of behaviour, delusional thinking, panic disorder, PTSD and extreme social anxiety. Such disorders can be seriously debilitating and ensure that the sufferer’s daily life becomes an ongoing struggle.
Even if a person doesn’t suffer a full blown anxiety disorder, he or she can still suffer acute distress from anxiety. Panic attacks, for example, can be very frightening and intense, with the sufferer often fearful that he or she is going to die although in reality that is impossible. A friend of mine who has experienced both severe depression and anxiety has said that if she had to choose, she would prefer to be depressed rather than anxious, as for her the mental and physical effect of anxiety is acutely painful. However, unfortunately anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with many people suffering from both simultaneously.
‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4 recently ran a feature on anxiety noting that it is particularly prevalent in older women (who coincidentally also often provide care for others: aging parents, partners and grandchildren). The programme highlighted how anxiety rarely gets the attention devoted to depression, despite being as common and as distressing. One of the commentators remarked that people who suffer high levels of anxiety are actually very brave. It takes courage to face life when one feels anxious on a daily basis. Moreover, that courage is rarely acknowledged.
In our next newsletter I will look at the ways in which anxiety can be reduced and how talking therapy can help people who suffer from it.
If you have anxiety and it want to meet with Jane to discuss tackling it please click below to make an appointment.