As opposed to just feeling really stressed.
Emily Blatchford Associate Lifestyle Editor, HuffPost Australia
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with one in four of us experiencing it at some stage during our lives.
Reports have also shown anxiety in children is on the rise, while levels of anxiety in general have steadily increased since the end of World War II. In fact, anxiety is so prevalent in today’s society it has even caused some to wonder if we are in the midst of an anxiety epidemic.
Others have claimed the term anxiety is bandied around too often, resulting in people claiming to have an anxiety disorder when they actually don’t.
So how do you know the difference between anxiety and, say, high stress levels? Or what constitutes an acceptable amount of anxiety as opposed to a panic attack?
“We can all be stressed, and I suppose we can be a bit anxious at times,” Catherine Madigan of Anxiety Australia tells HuffPost Australia.
“The thing about stress is it’s more of a response to like a daily pressure or some change in the environment. So, for example, if someone gives you a deadline at work, you might be stressed meeting that deadline.
“Or if you’re a chef working in a kitchen, when business is quiet, you may not be stressed. But if 30 people suddenly walk in the door and you have to get the meals out, you are under pressure because of that change in the environment.
“The thing about stress, so to use that example, is once the chef gets the meals out, the stress should dissipate because he’s met that challenge.
“Stress is short lived and the person de-stresses once the challenge is passed.”
This type of environmentally-fuelled stress is normal, and something all of us will experience as we go about our lives. In fact, if harnessed properly, stress can, at times, be a good thing.
But anxiety is a different kind of beast.
“If you have an anxiety disorder, that anxiety can persist in the absence of the obvious stressor,” Madigan explains. “People who are anxious can be scared and apprehensive of what lies ahead. So it may not be a problem in the here and now, it’s more of a ‘what if?’
Get onto things sooner rather than later. If left untreated, anxiety can really restrict people’s lives.”
“When we’ve got anxiety, we are anxious about the fact we are anxious. We have a fear that something terrible is going to happen.
“That anxiety might be specific to a place, so, for instance, if I had a panic attack in a supermarket, I might be thinking, ‘What if I have a panic attack next time I go to the supermarket?’ And so on.”
Anxiety signs and symptoms
While each anxiety condition is unique to the individual, there are some common signs to look out for.
“With a sudden surge of anxiety, there might be multiple symptoms going on at once,” Madigan says.
• Physical: panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound up and edgy
• Psychological: excessive fear, worry, catastrophising, or obsessive thinking
• Behavioural: avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious which can impact on study, work or social life.
“Your heart might be racing, you might feel breathless or dizzy or nauseous. You might feel a sense of doom.”
Still not sure? Take this anxiety checklist.
There are many ways to manage anxiety, ranging from relaxation techniques to counselling to medication. But Madigan says the first (and potentially most important step) is to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
“That encompasses everything in terms of trying to get a good night’s sleep and exercising regularly,” she says. “You are also more likely to have a panic attack if you smoke, so being a non-smoker helps.
“Meditating is really good for people with anxiety, so some people try to do a daily meditation practice.
“If people feel they are getting a bit anxious, slow diaphragmatic breathing can help. These days you can even get apps off your mobile phone.”
However, as always, it’s important to note if you feel like you’re not managing so well, to seek professional medical advice at the earliest opportunity.
“If people have an anxiety disorder they probably need professional help,” Madigan says. “Go to a GP and get a referral to a psychologist.
“Get onto things sooner rather than later. If you nip it in the bud, it’s less disabling. If left untreated, anxiety can really restrict people’s lives.”