Everyone feels at least slightly anxious from time to time; for example, before a job interview, on a first date, or just before receiving some exam results. A little bit of anxiety or stress can actually be helpful for us in some situations (e.g. during a performance or competitive sport) because it helps us focus on the task at hand and do the best job possible. However, sometimes anxiety can get out of hand and progress to be quite severe and pervasive such that you may feel it is running your life. 


What is anxiety?

As well as feeling apprehensive and worried (possibly without knowing why), if you are anxious you are likely to experience at least some of the following physical symptoms:


  • Tense muscles 

  • Trembling 

  • Churning stomach/ Butterflies 

  • Increased awareness of your heart beating 

  • Chest tightness 

  • Headaches 

  • Nausea 

  • Sweaty palms


Anxiety can range from quite mild (a few of these symptoms such that it feels a bit uncomfortable, but manageable) to very severe (all of these symptoms and more, such that you feel out of control and debilitated).


Anxiety Disorders

There are a number of different anxiety disorders, mainly defined by what makes people anxious, and what people do in response to the anxiety. Some brief definitions of the different disorders are:


Panic Disorder


When you experience recurrent panic attacks (see below), some of them occurring out of the blue, and you become very fearful of when the next panic attack is coming. In response, you often begin to avoid situations in which you think a panic attack might happen (e.g. crowded places, shops, stuck in traffic, lifts, public transport). This avoidance is often called agoraphobia.


Social Phobia


When you are excessively and chronically fearful of social interaction such that it interferes in your life and in what you want to do. The anxiety of socialising can result in panic attacks whilst talking to others, and often avoidance of social situations. You are primarily afraid of other people noticing how nervous you are and thinking badly of you as a result.


Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)


After a traumatic event (e.g. rape, bad car accident, armed robbery), some anxiety, agitation and problems sleeping are very normal. But if these symptoms do not improve after a month or two, and you are also experiencing flashbacks to the trauma (images of what happened playing over and over in your mind like it is happening again), nightmares, extreme anxiety when something reminds you of the trauma, and you are very jumpy and easily startled, you may be suffering from PTSD.


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)


When particular anxious thoughts or images keep coming into your head, as though you cant control them, and you feel that you have to engage in a certain behaviour to stop the thoughts and the anxiety. For example, thoughts about germs/getting sick, and then cleaning excessively or avoiding places like public toilets to stop the worries about germs. This cycle happens frequently and to such an extent that it interferes in your life.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder: As the name suggests, this disorder is characterised by a general and pervasive anxiety, primarily in the form of worrying thoughts that seem out of control. Many of the thoughts may begin with "What if....?".


Panic Attacks

Research tells us that 1 in 10 people have experienced a panic attack in the last 12 months. For some of those people it only occurs a couple of times, but for others, the panic attacks keep happening and are very distressing.


A panic attack feels pretty terrible. It is when you experience a lot of physical anxiety symptoms all at once and feel utterly panicked. Someone may experience all or some of the following symptoms:


  • Shortness of breath/hyperventilation 

  • Increased heart rate 

  • Chest tightness 

  • Dizziness 

  • Nausea 

  • Butterflies in the stomach 

  • Feelings of disorientation or things not seeming quite real 

  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes 

  • Trembling or shaking 

  • An urge to go to the toilet 

  • A strong desire to run or escape 

  • Worry that you are having a heart attack, going crazy, or going to die


Most people have a very strong feeling that something terrible is going wrong with their body and/or mind during a panic attack. Because of the chest pain, many people worry they are having a heart attack. [In fact, Emergency Departments see numerous people who are scared they are having a heart attack, but are actually experiencing a panic attack. Even though most people feel or think it is dangerous, this does not make it true. Out of all the millions of panic attacks that have occurred in the world, there are no documented cases of someone dying or having a heart attack or going instantly crazy. Panic attacks are not dangerous and will eventually finish. They just feel pretty awful in the meantime.


Treatment for panic attacks and anxiety disorders

The good news is that there is an effective, non-drug treatment for panic attacks and anxiety in general. This treatment is known as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), and is provided by clinical psychologists. CBT provides you with numerous strategies to control panic attacks such that they are no longer as threatening. Many people undertaking this treatment overcome panic attacks altogether. CBT is widely used to treat anxiety disorders, and has been repeatedly proven to be extremely effective for panic attacks. It is a relatively short-term treatment approach (approximately 1-3 months), however the specific format and duration of the treatment will depend on your individual needs.


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The information on this website is designed for general interest only, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for seeking personalised, professional advice.



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