Since the start of the coronavirus crisis last March, our lives have been different. With little sense of what the future may hold, and worn down by repeated lockdowns and restrictions, it’s not surprising our rates of anxiety have increased.
In the UK, a recent study showed that 57% of people were experiencing significantly more anxiety as a result of lockdowns.
But rest assured, help is available. Start by gaining a better understanding of what makes you vulnerable to anxiety, and discover the options available to help you manage it.
Here our experts have answered some commonly asked questions about anxiety.
What are the main symptoms of anxiety?
‘Anxiety can be mild or severe,’ says Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Psychotherapist at Livi. ‘Physical symptoms may include a fast heartbeat, dry mouth, tightness in your chest, a churning stomach, sweating, shallow breathing, light-headedness, nausea and restlessness.
‘You may also develop aches, pains and headaches or grind your teeth at night. Mentally you could feel tense, nervous and unable to relax. It may feel difficult to stop worrying and with that can come feelings of dread or panic. You might also feel indecisive and find it hard to concentrate.’
What can anxiety do to your body?
‘When you’re anxious your body goes into “fight or flight” mode,’ says Gauffin. This is an automatic response, activated by the sympathetic nervous system in response to a real or perceived threat of danger.
‘It causes your heart rate and blood pressure to go up, your breathing to increase and your adrenal glands to produce an excess of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
‘If you’re always anxious, this puts you in a constant state of hyper-alert, which is exhausting for the body and not good for your health in the long term.’
Research suggests that experiencing long-term anxiety may increase the risk of developing physical health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
How can anxiety cause depression?
‘It’s fairly common for people with anxiety to also suffer from depression,’ says Gauffin.
‘If you’re constantly living in a state of anxiety and fear, this can have a severe impact on your ability to focus on other things, and the quality of your life may start to suffer.
‘This, in turn, may cause you to withdraw from friends and family, because you simply can’t handle communicating with anyone when you’re feeling anxious.
‘It can also mean you find it hard to concentrate, which can then affect your performance at work, leaving you feeling hopeless or bad about yourself. This cycle can lead to depression.’
What kind of anxiety do I have?
‘There are several different types of anxiety disorders,’ says Gauffin.
Generalised anxiety disorder ‘Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is when you feel anxious more or less all the time. There’s no one specific reason as anything can make you feel anxious. As soon as you stop worrying about one thing, you find something else to worry about. People with GAD live in a state of constant low-level anxiety and this can be very tiring.’
Health anxiety ‘Health anxiety is when you constantly worry about your health. You imagine that every little symptom could be a serious disease. For example, if you get a headache, you worry you might have a brain tumour. Health anxiety is often triggered when there’s some area of your life that you feel you can’t control.
Social anxiety disorder ‘Social anxiety disorder (sometimes called social phobia) is the fear of being in social situations. This could include meeting or talking to people, speaking on the phone, eating or drinking in public, speaking in public, groups or meetings and feeling as if you’re being watched
Phobias ‘A phobia is an overwhelming fear of something like an object, animal or situation. As this triggers severe anxiety, you do everything you can to avoid it.
Panic disorder ‘Panic disorder is when you experience panic attacks out of the blue for no obvious reason.’
A GP can be the first port of call to help you identify whether you have anxiety and if so, the type you might have.
Where does anxiety come from?
‘Anxiety disorders stem from all sorts of reasons,’ says Gauffin. ‘Some people are naturally very sensitive and prone to developing anxiety. It can also be an inherited trait, particularly if there’s a history of anxiety in your family.
‘Anxiety is also often triggered by traumatic life events in the past. For example, if you were criticised or abused as a child, you’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as an adult.
‘Too much stress can also trigger anxiety — for example, work stress, worrying about finances, having a health condition or serious illness, going through divorce or a bereavement.
‘Also, lifestyle factors like not getting enough sleep, drinking too much, not exercising or eating healthily can cause or make anxiety worse.’
What can I do when anxiety hits?
Although it’s important to talk to a doctor or psychologist about your anxiety, there are a number of tools you can use to cope in the moment when your anxiety feels overwhelming. Here are 4.
1. Try a quick breathing exercise
Next time you feel anxious, try this simple breathing exercise to help calm your nervous system and reduce stress in your body, Gauffin suggests:
- Sit or lie down comfortably
- Exhale completely
- Gently and slowly inhale through your nose for the count of 4
- Gently exhale through your mouth for the count of 4
- Pause and hold for the count of 4
- As you breathe, imagine your breath moving around the image of a square
- Repeat for 1 or 2 minutes, or until you feel calmer
2. Get active — even when you don’t want to
‘When you feel anxious, it can make you want to curl up in a little ball,’ says Gauffin. ‘Yet, the best thing is to do the opposite and get moving. For example, jumping, swaying, stretching or dancing to music can help shift your energy from an anxious state to a calmer one.’
Exercise is also one of the best ways to help you manage your anxiety in the longer term. ‘Exercise triggers the release of endorphins (“feel-good” chemicals in the brain) that enhance emotional wellbeing,’ Gauffin points out.
Recent research showed that high intensity aerobic exercise like jogging, running or brisk walking, 2-5 times a week for at least 2 weeks, is effective in reducing anxiety.
3. Get into the habit of naming your fears
‘Anxiety is always about fear. So, when you feel anxious, acknowledge that it’s okay to feel afraid and soothe yourself with some self-compassionate understanding,’ says Gauffin.
‘Notice where you feel your emotions most intensely in your body. This could be your chest, heart, throat or abdomen,’ she adds.
‘Then, ask yourself, “What is it that I’m really afraid of? What is my body trying to tell me?” Think about what area in your life you feel overwhelmed by, scared about or lacking control over. Is there something — however small — you can do to change this? Or, perhaps talking to a friend or journaling about it could help you manage your fearful thoughts? Consider talking to a psychologist, or having a course of psychotherapy to help you too.’
4. Look for self-help support
‘If your anxiety symptoms are mild, then a self-help course, book or mental health app may help you control and improve your symptoms,’ says Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi.
‘You can find a wide range of resources to download at the NHS Mental Health apps library. Simple lifestyle changes like increasing your exercise levels, improving the quality of your sleep, and reducing your alcohol and caffeine intake can also help anxiety.’
What treatment is available for anxiety?
‘Psychological treatments for anxiety such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are recommended and very effective,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘Your doctor can refer you to a psychological service that could provide this treatment.
‘In people with severe symptoms, some medications can also be helpful. These include medications that can reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as tremors, or drugs like antidepressants which can help to improve mood and anxiety symptoms.’
How do I know I need help for my anxiety?
‘If your anxiety symptoms are interfering with your daily life and activities,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘Or, if you feel they are adversely affecting you in any other way, then you should always speak to your doctor, or a Livi doctor for further help.’
This article has been approved by Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Psychotherapist at Livi, and Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi.