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Therapy and Treatment

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Anxiety is something we all experience. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to recognise when a situation is potentially dangerous. It’s designed to keep us alive but unfortunately our bodies haven’t caught up with our brains so sometimes we feel anxiety for situations that are not life threatening and this can become a major problem in life. Anxiety is something I myself have suffered from, not the normal levels of anxiety but the kind of debilitating anxiety that can lead to other problems such as depression. Luckily I had counselling and learned the coping mechanisms I needed to recover, in this article I want to describe the nature of anxiety and share some of these coping mechanisms as well as describe how anxiety can become a disorder and the reasons this can happen. Realising the difference between “normal” levels of anxiety and abnormal levels is extremely important, it can mean the difference between a happy life and a life feeling trapped in a pit of anxiety and despair.

Most of us feel anxious in situations we are supposed to, for example feeling anxious for a driving test, in exams, if we feel threatened etc. Sometimes though we feel threatened in situations that we don’t need to. Anxiety is a direct emotional reaction to us feeling vulnerable. Different situations will have different effects on people because we’re all individuals – what one person views as a problem another person wouldn’t. However, there are situations that will make most of us feel vulnerable. These are situations where our basic needs are threatened.  Abraham Maslow developed the Hierarchy of Needs, they are (most basic needs listed at the bottom of the triangle):

The more basic the need, the more we feel vulnerable. For example, you’d feel more anxious if you couldn’t breathe than if your confidence had been knocked by something. An anxiety disorder can arise when one of the basic needs has been threatened consistently.  This could be for example that in a social situation you have consistently had your confidence and self esteem threatened, perhaps you feel you made a fool of yourself once and then expected to do so over and over again, or someone kindly reminds you of the incident numerous times, this could lead to social anxiety. 

Generalised Anxiety disorder is a debilitating condition and although many sufferers believe they are alone in their suffering, this condition has seen an increase as we are faced with more and more stressful situations. This is the anxiety disorder that I suffered with; I can honestly say it was like living in my own personal hell for a couple of years. I was constantly anxious, I never felt “normal” or “calm”, everyday was a cycle of anxiety, anxiety attack, panic attack, anxiety, anxiety attack, panic attack etc. One day I had experienced 4 panic attacks on my way to work, I was in an absolute state physically (headache, feeling sick, dizzy, exhausted) and emotionally (upset, depressed, etc) and I had convinced myself (on a daily basis by this point) that I was going to keel over and die for no apparent reason or that I had some sort of undiagnosed heart condition because I was experiencing heart palpitations so much. Then of course there are the self-defeating behaviours that develop as a way to cope, mine was to drink my way through it. Frankly, I’m unsure how my liver and kidneys survived that particular section of my life! The physical symptoms got worse as well, the tensions headaches, chest pains, other muscle pains in the neck and back, I developed IBS and sometimes would tremble because I was on edge constantly. Finally, I called a counsellor. In a therapeutic setting diagnosis for this condition is given after the sufferer has been experiencing the following symptoms for at least 6 months:

Excessive anxiety and worry about a number of activities, finding it difficult to control the worry, anxiety or worry also associated with 3 or more of the following physical symptoms: Fatigue, Impaired concentration, Impaired sleep, Muscle tension, Irritability. The focus of the anxiety or worry must not be the result of another disorder such as OCD or PTSD or be the physiological effects of medication, drug abuse or alcohol abuse.

GAD affects sufferers mentally, socially and physically. If you think you may be suffering or are beginning to suffer please call a counsellor, you may feel like you don’t know how to feel “normal” anymore but with the right therapy you can find the root of your anxiety and deal with it – you can feel normal again – don’t suffer in silence, you are not weak or weird – think about it this way, isn’t it worse to suffer in silence than get the help you need? 

The nature of anxiety is that it begins to take on a personality of its own after a while. Anxiety works not just on emotional and physical vulnerability, but psychologically on the expectation that you will feel anxious in a certain situation. There are many coping mechanisms that can help you, here are a couple:

Firstly, take a step back. Your anxiety is a prehistoric function of the brain to keep you alive, if you truly have nothing to feel anxious about you need to remind yourself of this. Appeal to the prehistoric part of your brain, and talk yourself through it. Look around you; are there any sabre tooth tigers about to attack? Are you in a swimming pool of hungry sharks? How likely is it really that the plane is going to crash? You need to give yourself some perspective, then talk yourself through it, and encourage yourself that you will be ok. Take control of your thoughts, convincing yourself of the worst is not going to help!

Another method for dealing with anxiety is distraction. This works best when you can engross yourself in something completely, the more you concentrate on the anxiety the worse it gets. Do you have a favourite piece of music? Concentrate on every bit of the song, every lyric, every drum beat, allow yourself to be involved on a deeper level. 

There is a coping mechanism that is the opposite of this. Everyone is different so you have to find the right approach for you. This coping mechanism involves talking yourself through the anxiety, but reminding yourself of how you feel. “Oh yes I recognise this symptom, there go the butterflies, now I’m starting to feel a bit sick, I’m starting to panic but that’s ok because I’ve felt like this before and I know how I’ll feel, yep I recognise those heart palpitations…”  The aim of this is to encourage you to feel more secure in your anxiety, so rather than being afraid of it, the anxiety is something you’re familiar with. 

I hope this article has been of some help. Anxiety and panic are similar but different so next time I’ll talk about panic attacks and disorders and explain the difference. The coping mechanisms are similar, but there are a few different elements that work better with panic attacks.

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by Jenny