Anxiety and stress are connected, and whilst stress is often a part of everyday life, when it becomes too much anxiety can take over. Anxiety disorders are a group mental illnesses where the distress endured disrupts everyday life and your ability to function normally. Dr Lars Davidsson, a leading psychiatrist, explains why keeping tabs on your stress levels is so important, and when seeking help from a psychiatrist is best.
What defines anxiety?
Anxiety, fundamentally, is a psychological and physiological response to real and imagined dangers. Some of the hallmark traits of anxiety include trouble breathing, impaired sleep, fatigue and generally feeling ‘on edge’.
There are variations of anxiety, one of which is called Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is characterised by excessive and exaggerated stress about everyday events and situations, for no obvious reason. Those with GAD often stress and worry about work, money and relationships, and as such, their anxiety can dominate their life.
Panic attacks are a common trait of people living with anxiety, and are episodes of feelings of terror. When suffering a panic attack, you might have a racing heart, feel sweaty, experience dizziness and have trouble breathing. If someone who experiences panic attacks is unable to predict their onset, this is known as panic disorder.
What is it like living with anxiety?
To summarise the lived experience of anxiety in one word, I would describe it as exhausting. This is because people living with anxiety always feel on edge and have trouble sleeping, which makes them more tired. In addition to this, those with anxiety will often try to avoid certain situations or places that trigger their anxiety (for example, a lift or a crowded space). Hence, constant efforts to avoid these triggers puts restrictions on their lives and becomes the dominating factor in all decisions made.
Are there any risk factors for having anxiety?
Like other forms of mental illness, often anxiety can run in families. However, anxiety can also be contributed to by the following factors:
- Smoking (in the short-term, smoking can make you less anxious, but long-term it can lead you to feeling more anxious – this is the same for alcohol and certain drugs).
- People living through periods of high-stress (e.g. long working hours or long commutes) can culminate in anxiety.
What about stress then? How does this relate to anxiety?
Stress is a normal part of life, and is that feeling you have when perhaps you have more on your plate than usual. You might feel more on edge, have a raised heart-rate or feel like you have bursts of energy. When you are in control of your stress, often it can be helpful – it can give you focus and allow you to achieve what you need to achieve. However, if you feel out of control with your levels of stress, to the point that it affects your ability to sleep, to focus and to get anything done, then this is when stress becomes a problem, and feelings of anxiety begin to take over.
Stress over a long period of time is also a problem. Short periods of stress are natural and usually manageable, but living with constant feelings of stress can manifest over time. Personality also plays a part with stress as some people are more resilient to handling their stress than others. Therefore, asking how much stress is too much is not black and white as everyone is different.
How can anxiety and stress be managed?
People suffering from anxiety often do not seek treatment, but continue to suffer and find ways to cope on their own. The same goes for people dealing with stress. It is not uncommon for people to self-medicate or use alcohol as a crutch. The evening glass of wine can quickly lead to a bottle when people are dealing with stress or anxiety. As alcohol can actually worsen anxiety, one of the best steps to take if you do suffer from anxiety or feel stressed is to avoid alcohol altogether!
However, there are treatments available for anxiety and stress. For milder cases of anxiety, there are forms of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and for more severe cases a combination of CBT and medication can really help to manage feelings of anxiety.
To get a better handle on stress, mindfulness therapies have shown a lot of promise, and changing the way we view stress, particularly in the workplace can help too. For example, offering flexible working hours or work-from-home days can really help make the work/life balance much more manageable, which in turn helps us keep control of our stress levels.
What is your best advice for people suffering from anxiety and stress?
The best advice I can give is that if you are feeling stressed and unable to cope, or feel out of control with anxiousness, seek the help of a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can discuss treatment options, management techniques and provide support. Also, it is always better to seek help sooner rather than later. Getting signed off work temporarily will only provide a short-term fix, and returning to work will only bring back the same feelings of stress.
Therefore, do seek help and do it early.
If you feel you may be suffering from anxiety or stress and wish to seek help, make an appointment with a specialist.