Mild anxiety is a normal part of life and often occurs prior to an occasion where we are hoping to do well, such as making a speech at a special function or competing in an important event. We usually refer to it as ‘being nervous’ or ‘having butterflies.’ Anxious thoughts cause our brains to release hormones and neurotransmitters – one that most people are familiar with is called adrenaline. These neurotransmitters cause changes in our bodies which include speeding up the heart beat and dilating the blood vessels to make the blood flow faster to the muscles, but less to the digestive system. This can cause the person’s muscles to tremble, the body to perspire, and the stomach to feel uncomfortable. As long as it stays mild, anxiety usually enhances performance, helping people to be more alert, act more quickly, and perform more strongly. This mild anxiety passes quickly and the body soon returns to normal.
Abnormal anxiety is present for much longer periods and is more intense. When people engage in excessive worry, the symptoms of anxiety can worsen. People with moderate levels of anxiety usually experience things like heart palpitations, shakiness, feeling scared, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing and breathlessness. People who have severe anxiety frequently experience panic attacks, feel like fainting, sweat profusely, feel terrified, and have great difficulty breathing.
Once anxiety is heightened to this extent it can create a vicious cycle. A person who has experienced a panic attack often finds it so horrific that he/she becomes terribly afraid of having another one. Often in an attempt to prevent another panic attack people change their lifestyle, being very cautious about going to places where they fear another panic attack might occur. They play it safe by staying home, start to feel self conscious about having something wrong with them, avoid people, and stop answering the phone. Soon they have developed agoraphobia (literally, fear of the market place.) Other phobias can become more pronounced during periods of anxiety, including fear of germs, fear of the dark, and claustrophobia. Many people begin to feel their lives are no longer what they wanted and develop depression after a period of anxiety.
Because symptoms of anxiety are difficult to tolerate some people self-medicate with alcohol, marijuana, recreational drugs or other prescribed medications. The temporary relief they give allows the person time out from their distressing symptoms, but does not cure anything. In fact, these diversions can become a problem in themselves. Not only can substances become addictive, but their cost can lead to financial difficulties, and their use lead to social and legal difficulties. But primarily, they prevent a person learning effective ways to cope with anxiety. The only real way out is to identify what started the anxiety in the first place and learn healthy strategies to deal with it. This is far more than learning to tolerate anxiety, or just gritting your teeth and pretending to not be anxious. Anxiety is the biggest single factor in mental health difficulties. Showing people how to overcome anxiety is what psychologists are best equipped to help with.
Not all worry is bad. In fact, if we are facing some problems in life and we take the time to sit down and think of solutions, we are quite likely make life better for ourselves. Sometimes problems are quite complex or difficult to find solutions for, and require more pondering upon. However, some people find themselves caught up in worry for a greater part of each day. Usually these people have fallen into the trap of either thinking constantly about all the things that might go wrong in the future, or being distressed about all the things that went wrong in the past, or both. Worriers are usually a drain on the energy levels of those around them, and can sometimes notice that people are avoiding them. Worse still, living in a worried state starts to make negative changes to the way our bodies function. Being in a constant state of tension can cause the muscles to tighten and ache, deprive our vital organs of blood flow, weakening their function, and may pre-dispose a person to cancer and heart disease.
A psychologist can help sort out whether your level of worry is healthy or not, and if you need to reduce worrying she can give you strategies to get you back to living a rich, full and meaningful life.
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Anyone who has experienced a panic attack reports it as an extremely frightening event, and one they do not wish to experience again. The situation in which it has occurred can add to the fear, especially if it happened whilst driving, or in front of a large crowd.
Panic attacks start out as normal anxiety that increases more and more until it escalates into intolerable symptoms. The heart beats very fast, muscles become very tense and tight, chest muscles are so constricted that breathing is very difficult, sweat pours out from the body, hands and face, the brain becomes faint, the internal organs feel painful and often vomiting occurs, the body trembles all over and the legs become too weak to stand, and many people fear they are having a heart attack or going to die. Sometimes a person having a panic attack completely blacks out, but no one ever dies. As soon as the person faints, the adrenaline stops rushing and all the symptoms subside.
Panic attacks can feel like they come on in a sudden rush, but they usually start from often unnoticed anxious thoughts. A psychologist can help identify which thoughts start your panic attack and show you some simple techniques to manage them so that you can be confident you will never have a panic attack again.
Agoraphobia, or fear of the market place, is the most common of all phobias that get in the way of living a normal life. It involves feeling anxious about, and usually avoiding, places or situations from which it might be difficult to escape, or embarrassing, or where help might not be available if the person were to have panic symptoms or even a full panic attack. Such situations include being alone and far from home, in a crowd, travelling by train, or being on a bridge.
Social phobiahappens when people are very self-conscious about others watching them. They fear making mistakes, embarrassing themselves or being humiliated. Most normal people become anxious when asked to give a speech, but will feel the nerves and do it anyway. However, someone with a social phobia will go out of their way to avoid being put in the situation where others might be watching them.
Situational phobias are those that bring on feelings of anxiety when confronted by a certain circumstance, such as flying in a plane, travelling by bus, going through a tunnel, riding in a lift, etc. Most people who suffer from this recognise that their fears are irrational but feel helpless to stop the anxiety. Many times people can avoid these situations without it really getting in the way of having a fairly normal life, but when it comes to taking the ship to Europe instead of a plane it is probably time to confront the phobia. Your psychologist can take you through some simple steps to ease your anxiety and help you get back to living a normal life.
Natural environment phobias are fears of thunder, lightning, strong wind, etc. These usually start in childhood and are often accepted by the child’s family members. In adulthood they don’t often get in the way of living a normal life, except perhaps subjecting the sufferer to a bit of jibing by anyone who is aware of it. In fact, most people grow out of it when they acquire a greater understanding of the nature of storms.
Specific phobias. Apart from those listed above the most common phobias people ask a psychologist for help with is a fear of needles or the sight of blood. Once again, your psychologist can take you through some simple steps to ease your anxiety and help you manage to accept injections as part of your normal life.
(Fear of germs is usually associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, another form of anxiety.)