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Introduction on Anxiety

A certain amount of anxiety is normal in life - indeed, moderate amounts of anxiety before an important event can actually enhance our performance. However, anxiety can become so severe as to limit our ability to function normally or to enjoy life. If this is happening on a regular basis, if you are starting to avoid situations or using excessive amounts of alcohol or other drugs to make you feel better, it may be useful to seek professional help. This part of the web site discusses anxiety in some detail and may help you to decide how best to tackle anxiety if it is affecting you or someone you know.

Excessive anxiety is for many people a part of their lives for as long as they can remember. Other people may develop problems with anxiety, seemingly, 'out of the blue'. Let's look at each of these in turn - firstly longer term anxiety. Or click here to skip the next section if anxiety is perhaps something new in your life.

Anxiety is a normal response to any situation that puts a stress on us. Whilst some stress is occasional and extreme, it is actually low level, everyday stress that can be most damaging and can lead eventually to a failure to cope.

Is it not just the way I am?

We all know people who seem to be 'anxious by nature'. They may be timid in disposition and easily upset or they may never have coped well with stressful situations ever since childhood. Parents may notice differences between their children, with one child seeming to have a more anxious disposition since birth. Surely this indicates that anxiety is part of a person's nature and that little can be done to change things?

Well, yes and no! Yes, there is now overwhelming evidence which suggests that our anxiety response is governed by our biology (genetic make-up) and that a tendency towards an anxious nature (and all the problems that come with it) can be inherited. So, yes, a tendency to be anxious may be an inherent part of who you are. However, the same is also true of many characteristics that affect our health, such as heart disease or breast cancer for example. Whilst a particular person may have a genetic predisposition to develop a disease, this does not necessarily mean that they will actually get it. Whether they do or not depends on so-called environmental factors, like lifestyle, diet and so on.

The same is true of anxiety. So, no, someone who is born with a predisposition towards being anxious may grow up to be troubled little by their supposedly anxious nature. This is especially so if they are lucky enough to receive good parenting with lots of love, care and reassurance. In such a supportive environment they may quite naturally (and without realising it) learn from their parents the skills they need to help them deal with any anxiety in a rational and useful way.

Of course, other scenarios are also possible; the worst case scenario is a child with an anxious predisposition born into a damaging environment where they receive poor parenting and perhaps are subjected to factors that provoke greater levels of anxiety like, physically or emotionally absent parent(s), alcohol/drug abuse by parent(s), violence, excessive anger or physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Any child, no matter what its genetic heritage, will be damaged by such environments but the make-up of the individual may well affect their ability to survive and recover from such trauma by adulthood.

The chart shows, in general terms, the effects of different combinations of nature (biology) and environment on the  degree of problem with anxiety in adulthood. 

Positive (+) and negative (-) signs are used to denote these combinations of positive / negative disposition to anxiety and parenting / childhood environment and their impact on disposition in adult life.

The effects of different combinations of nature (biology) and nurture (upbringing) on anxiety

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Anxiety is a Natural Response to Stress

Many people who have been troubled little by anxiety can suddenly find they become affected by it and may cope badly with it at certain times in their lives. This is because anxiety is our internal response to external stressful events.

The stress I am talking about here can be pressure at work, a bereavement, major life change (like separation, redundancy or relocation), a new mouth to feed, financial problems or difficulties in a relationship.

People who normally experience only mild anxiety or who usually cope well with any anxiety they experience may, at times of stress, start to experience unpleasant symptoms. Whenever we face a difficulty or a challenge in life, our bodies prepare us to deal with it using the so-called 'fight or flight' response - more details about this on the next page or click here. This involves a complex chain of events in which our bodies release a number of hormones that help prepare us for the challenges that lie ahead. 

The changes in our bodies caused by these hormones are designed to enhance our chances of survival but they evolved 70,000 years ago when the world was a very different place! These days the famous 'flight or fight' response can leave us feeling tense, 'het up', with stiff muscles, a headache, insomnia or bowel problems. If this happens over many weeks or months, the same changes can also reduce our immune response, reduce our interest in sex, cause panic attacks and actually change our psychology, leaving us feeling withdrawn, depressed, aggressive and in extreme cases suicidal. Long term anxiety may also increase our risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. 

Periods of prolonged intense anxiety (as short as four weeks in some cases) can cause us to become 'sensitised' to anxiety. This means that we will 'over-react' to stressful events, leaving us 'jumpy', over-alert, bad tempered and nervous. It also means we can become stuck in an ever-worsening cycle of anxiety and symptoms. Anxiety may also cause us to turn to unhealthy ways of coping like excessive drinking, drug taking or gambling. In fact, alcohol, drugs and even caffeine all make anxiety worse, even though they may seem to help in the short term. Other psychological problems may be made much worse by bouts of anxiety.

In short, anxiety is a serious problem with potentially major effects on our health and on our relationships with those around us. It can affect our ability to work effectively and can lead us into far worse problems or difficulties. Apart from which, the anxious life is also a miserable one.

Are you Anxious? Is it a Problem?

'Are you anxious?' may sound like a silly question and for many people it is! Of course you know when you are anxious. You know the symptoms: racing heart, dry mouth, sweaty palms and 'collywobbles' in the tummy. Fine, these are indeed some of the signs that you are anxious. And remember, it is normal to experience these kinds of symptoms in response to a stressful or scary event such as standing up to give a presentation, facing an exam, a first date, going to a funeral - or even a wedding (especially if it is yours!).

What we are concerned about here is abnormal anxiety - experiencing the symptoms of anxiety in response to something that most people wouldn't consider stressful, like thinking about work the next day, going to a social event, going shopping, flying in an airliner, cleaning the bathroom or talking to a friend on the telephone. Also, we are concerned with those situations which, whilst normally acknowledged to be somewhat stressful, cause you to become so incapacitated by anxiety that you cannot face them. Examples here might include talking to your boss about a long-overdue pay rise or excessive demands being placed on you by him/her, dating, asking for your money back on a faulty item or giving a presentation.

What is also worth bearing in mind is that many people do not realise they are experiencing anxiety. Many, many people go to their doctor thinking they may have heart problems only to discover that they are in fact suffering a panic attack - one of the most unpleasant and indeed frightening symptoms of excessive anxiety.

To make matters more confusing, the symptoms may appear without apparently being connected to any form of stressful event. This sometimes happens, for example, when a person who is worried about something is thinking about their problems without being fully conscious of their train of thought. It can also happen when something they see or hear (perhaps on TV) momentarily and briefly makes a connection to, or reminds them of, the stressful situation. In such circumstances, we can become anxious even though we are removed from the source of our worries. Someone involved in disciplinary proceedings at work, for example, might become anxious whilst watching 'The Bill' on TV, even though the incident is not a police matter. The connection here would perhaps be 'the investigation', 'matters of guilt' or 'thoughts of punishment'.

So, being clear about whether you are suffering from abnormal anxiety isn't always easy. If you are in doubt, a chat with your GP or a qualified counsellor will almost certainly help you clarify things. They will also be able to discuss with you ways you can help yourself alleviate the symptoms. In some cases your GP may suggest you try taking an antidepressant medication (since some of these also help with anxiety) or may refer you for counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy. The good news is that anxiety is often very treatable and responds well to either psychotherapy, medication or a combination of the two. The bad news is that many people suffer unnecessarily from abnormal anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. Some estimates suggest that fewer than one in three people who suffer anxiety disorders go for and receive treatment. Back to Top of PageTop of Page

Next Page "What Happens When I Get Anxious?"

Alternatively ... Take a simple online test to check your levels of Anxiety

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Or click on one of the links at top of page

The next page discusses the 'fight or flight response and looks at the physical changes that take place in your body when you get anxious. We also look at the medical consequences of these changes.

After that we consider the psychological changes, avoidance and how anxiety can grow in our minds and become a big problem.

Dr Alan Priest, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist provides therapy for anxiety in Huddersfield and Halifax. Contact Me.

Page updated 25 March 2013.