What is anxiety? A comprehensive overview

Feelings of worry or fear are a normal response to stressful situations, and can actually be helpful, priming us for action and promoting problem-solving.

But when anxious thoughts start to interrupt our daily life, it’s time to consider whether you might be living with an anxiety disorder.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a fundamental human response.

It is like an in-built alarm system that instinctively activates in the face of perceived danger, compelling us to be on our guard.

It nudges our adrenaline levels, preparing our bodies for a fight or flight response, which is a natural reaction that has been ingrained in our biology.

However, when this natural worry and fear becomes more intense and constant, you may be living with an anxiety disorder.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are a common mental health condition, affecting 1 in every 6 Australians.

Anxiety disorders venture beyond the typical nerves you feel before making a speech or during a stressful event.

They're not fleeting moments of anxiety that dissolve once the nerve-wracking event concludes.

Instead, they're characterised by a more severe, persistent form of anxiety that isn't easily shaken off.

This anxiety lingers and amplifies, creeping into all aspects of everyday life and becoming impossible to ignore.

Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions to do with a sense of excessive worry and fear, each displaying unique symptoms. These include conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and more.

Generalised anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is when you feel almost constant worry about day-to-day activities. This constant worry often interrupts your daily thoughts, and can be difficult to control.

The triggers for GAD are different for everyone but can include things like health concerns, deadlines, job security, relationships and social interactions.

In essence, GAD makes it incredibly challenging to keep worry at bay, turning even the most mundane situations into potential sources of stress.

While there are many emotional symptoms of GAD, as we’ve mentioned, there are also various physical symptoms which include feeling tense or jumpy, restlessness, insomnia, fatigue, headaches and muscle tension.

It’s critical to remember that professional treatment and coping strategies for anxiety are available if you feel like you need extra support.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety disorder (sometimes referred to as social phobia or social anxiety) involves an intense, persistent fear of being watched, judged, and negatively evaluated by others.

It's not merely a fear of public speaking or shyness. It's a deep-rooted anxiety that can take a firm hold of a person's everyday life, turning social scenarios into terrifying encounters.

In some cases, this fear can become so strong that you start avoiding social situations altogether.

Physical symptoms of social anxiety include things like blushing, rapid heartbeat, trembling, sweating, and nausea.

While living with social anxiety can feel overwhelming, it’s important to keep in mind that you are not alone, and that there are treatments, support and coping strategies available to help you manage it effectively.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is distinguishable by the occurrence of panic attacks.

Panic attacks are debilitating episodes of anxiety that can cause you to feel as though you’re losing control.

It's like being caught in a tumultuous sea of worry, where waves of fear rise and crash, bringing with them a host of physical symptoms.

These symptoms can include a racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling and sweating.

Panic attacks can also occur without a clear cause or trigger, making you live in fear of the next panic attack, creating a cycle of worry and anxiety.

While panic disorder can be a massive challenge, with the right treatment and support it is possible to manage the symptoms and reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

Specific phobias

Specific phobias are overwhelming fears that are tied to particular objects, situations or experiences.

These fears go beyond the ordinary caution most people might feel. Instead, they evoke a response so potent that it can lead to severe anxiety or even a panic attack.

The nature of these phobias can be incredibly varied, from a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) to a fear of separation (separation anxiety disorder), or a fear of small spaces (claustrophobia).

The common thread, however, is the excessive fear and dread these phobias evoke in relation to the actual threat or danger presented.

This leads to avoidance behaviour, where the individual goes to great lengths to steer clear of the source of their fear, which can, in turn, disrupt their daily life.

It's important to remember that these phobias, while disruptive, can be effectively managed with appropriate treatment.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is an anxiety disorder that holds individuals within a relentless cycle of intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviours.

These recurring, unwanted thoughts are known as obsessions, and they can introduce persistent unease into a person's mind.

To alleviate the anxiety caused by these obsessions, people living with OCD often engage in specific, ritualistic behaviours, known as compulsions.

These might include actions like excessive handwashing, repeatedly checking locks or compulsively counting items.

It's a loop that can feel almost inescapable - the obsession causes distress, and the compulsion is performed to reduce the distress, but this relief is temporary and the cycle continues.

Breaking free from the cycle of OCD can be challenging.

Yet, it's important to remember that if you reach out for the right help and treatment, you can learn to manage your symptoms and regain control over your life.

When should I seek help from a mental health professional?

If your feelings of anxiety are constant, overwhelming, last for a long time or are hindering your daily activities, it might be time to seek guidance from a mental health professional.

Along with seeking help from a professional, there are also many other mental health support organisations and helplines that are available.

There are many different ways that a professional can help you to manage and treat anxiety including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), talk therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments.

Coping strategies can encompass mindfulness techniques, regular exercise, a balanced diet, good sleep hygiene, and creating a strong support network.

Remember, it's okay to ask for help. Seeking support is a step towards understanding and managing your anxiety, and getting back to living life on your own terms.

To learn more about anxiety, read our blog: Living with anxiety: symptoms, treatments, coping strategies, employment and supports.