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ANXIETY: that creeping monster

Depression gets a lot of press but a huge number of people suffer from anxiety, something that’s far more hidden but can be equally devastating. For some, it’s a creeping, unsettling sense of dread. A knot in the stomach that refuses to go away. For others, it’s a brutal, crippling attack of anxiety. And unless you’ve ever experienced anxiety, and spoken about it, and been surprised at how many people have quietly told you that yes, they too suffer? Chances are you’ll never know how common it is.

This is what an anxiety attack feels like.

“My chest pains begin tear through my thoughts at this stage of the attack. It’s like a boulder has plopped itself on my chest and tight pains are stretching their long fingers around my heart.

I’m completely certain at this point that I’m dying. I’m having a massive heart attack or stroke. Is this reasonable for a 21year old girl to think? No. Does it penetrate my thoughts? Yes, during almost every attack.”

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Anxiety is an insidious state of the mind that gets around our usual defences by creeping up slowly. It’s not just for the ‘mentally ill’. It affects many of us, for different reasons. In fact, according to MindFrame, about 10 per cent of Australians will experience anxiety at some point over the course of a lifetime. For some it will be a short, sharp and acute period of anxiousness and for others a long and drawn-out battle. Let’s dig a little deeper.

What is anxiety, exactly?

Anxiety is not fear, to be clear right from the start. Fear is an evolutionary response to a known threat. Rabbits fear foxes, for instance. Anxiety is more complex than that. Where fear is for a specific threat, anxiety relates to non-specific threats, generally about unavoidable or uncontrollable situations. Anxiety can have a trigger, but it exists perfectly fine without any noticeable cause. That means its onset doesn’t have to be for any particular reason that might be obvious to the sufferer.

What kinds of anxiety are there?

As mentioned, anxiety is not the same for everyone. But there are general categories. Let’s go through them:

1. Existential Anxiety (concerning death, mortality, meaninglessness in life, guilt and so on).

2. Choice or decision anxiety (concerned with stresses over making decisions in life, big or small).

3. Stranger and social anxiety (fairly self explanatory)

4. Test or exam anxiety (we might all be tempted to say we’ve experienced this, but anxiety is more extreme than general ‘don’t want to sit this exam’ type feelings).

There are more, so many more, but we’ll leave that for you to discuss in the comments.

What does anxiety feel like?

As with most matters of the mind, anxiety serves an evolutionary purpose possibly long since rendered obsolete in humans. Yet it persists. According to Jeffrey Gray in the British Journal of Psychology:

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“The behavioral aspects of anxiety are a halt in ongoing behavior, heightened arousal, and heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli, especially novel ones. Its function is to enable the animal to decide if changed circumstances require a change in established behavior patterns.”

To listen to the words of those who have suffered anxiety or panic attacks, they are a lot more vivid. It’s different for everyone, but anxiety almost always consists of a combination of increased heart rate, blood pressure, fatigue, nausea, chest pain, sweating, dilated pupils. And those who suffer it may feel a sense of impending dread, possibly to the point where they feel they might die.

How can you tell if you have anxiety?

Pay attention to your body and whether it is doing any of the above things. But also pay attention to yourself and your thoughts. ReachOut has a great list of hints about how to notice anxiety which include: asking many simple and unnecessary questions for reassurance, getting upset when your routine is interrupted, over-bearing pessimism and many more. Check the list out here.

What do you do if you have anxiety?

Get help, from a friend or a professional. The human brain is a wholly remarkable organ. It’s so complex and so powerful that it can trick even you. It can cloud your judgment. You won’t even know it’s happening so you really do need help from the outside if you feel a change in your situation. But, to begin with, try thinking about what might have caused the anxiety (changes to your routine, stress at work, family stress) and make it an honest appraisal. Sometimes the anxiety will come from where you least expect it. Make sure you are eating healthy and exercising regularly – this has more of an impact on the mind than many of us would consider. Most importantly, talk about it.

Start now.

SBS’s Insight program will be running one of its most popular shows, on the issue of anxiety, tonight. You can watch the promotional trailer below.

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Have you suffered anxiety? Do you know what triggers it? How does it physically and mentally feel for you and how do you treat it? Have you found anything that helps?

For those who want professional help, please visit BeyondBlue and ReachOut for more information and contact details. Don’t wait to talk to someone.

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