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Australians have come a long way in understanding depression. Most recognise the symptoms and believe in the value of professional help.
But anxiety disorders have been left behind. National surveys of “mental health literacy” show Australians are far less likely to recognise symptoms of anxiety.
Around 15% of Australians suffer an anxiety disorder in any given year. This includes generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
When given a description of a person who is depressed, around three-quarters of survey respondents recognise the person is “depressed”. With PTSD, only a third get the label correct. For social phobia, it’s less than one in ten.
Australians are also less likely to see a person with an anxiety disorder as warranting professional help.
Watch: Mamamia co-founder Mia Freedman opens up about her life with generalised anxiety disorder. (Post continues after video.)
One reason for lack of understanding is that anxiety is something everyone experiences. And it’s not always a bad thing. Anxiety is necessary for our survival, because it protects us from danger. It can also motivate us to improve our performance in situations such as exams, sporting competitions and public speaking.
But, like many good things, it is possible to have too much. When the anxiety is intense, lasting and interferes with a person’s life, then it becomes an anxiety disorder.
However, there is no clear boundary between everyday anxiety and anxiety disorders. They lie along a continuum, just like obesity is at the high end of body size and hypertension at the high end of blood pressure.
Not a weakness.
Because we all experience anxiety and manage OK with it most of the time, it’s easy to judge people with anxiety disorders as weak. Almost half (45 per cent) of Australians believe “weakness of character” is a likely cause of someone developing severe social anxiety.
But imagine feeling like a semi-trailer is going to run over you when you are crossing the road. Or you’re working in bomb disposal and have to defuse a device that could explode at any time. That is what it can be like for a person with an anxiety disorder, even though there is no semi-trailer and no bomb.
Extreme anxiety can cause physical symptoms, such as pounding heart, chest pain, sensations of choking, sweating and shaking. For a person having a panic attack, which involves anxiety at its most extreme, it can feel like they are going to die.
Given that extremes of anxiety can be so unpleasant, it’s not surprising that people with anxiety disorders will often rearrange their lives to avoid these experiences. This is when anxiety changes from being a help to a major hindrance.