Feeling anxious from time to time is a normal part of being human and helps alert us to potentially dangerous situations. However, if your anxiety is severe, chronic (lasting for 6 months or more) or out of proportion with your situation, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
It’s estimated that 264 million people around the world live with an anxiety disorder and 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorder within the general population and with the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic intensifying feelings of uncertainty and fear for many people, healthy anxiety management is more essential now than ever.
In this article we’ll explain the types of anxiety disorders that exist, offer proven tips and tools for managing anxiety yourself, outline some professional anxiety treatment options, and give advice on how to cope with anxiety during COVID-19.
“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”
— Arthur Somers Roche
Type of Anxiety Disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), classifies anxiety disorders as those which share features of excessive fear and related behavioural disturbances, and which cause significant social or work-related impairment. These include separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, specific phobia, social phobia, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorders and trauma and stressor-related disorders, while in different categories to anxiety disorder, share many of the same features and respond to similar treatment methods. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anxiety disorders may also occur alongside other conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or eating disorders and when very severe, can lead to self-harm or suicide.
When anxiety reaches a clinical level, it can greatly affect your quality of life and ability to go about your day-to-day activities. In the grips of severe anxiety people may experience physical symptoms that include rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, chest pain, dry mouth, diarrhoea, sweating, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, nausea and trembling. There are also secondary effects that include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension or soreness, and difficulty falling or staying asleep. The good news is that there are numerous clinical treatments that can greatly reduce or even cure the symptoms of severe anxiety as well as many tools for helping you cope with anxiety at home.
“Panic attacks creep up on me, strike without warning. Sometimes they’re triggered by a real-life concern, but just as often they arrive out of the blue and leave me frantically trying to think of a reason I’m suddenly feeling this way, before realising there is no reason.”
— Ben Pobjie, anxiety sufferer
What Causes Anxiety?
The causes of anxiety can be complex, and what may trigger an anxiety disorder in one person may not do so in another. However, the following factors may contribute to a person developing an anxiety disorder:
- Trauma in childhood or adulthood.
- Environmental stressors, such as work problems and relationship or family issues.
- Genetics: people who have a family member with anxiety are more likely to develop anxiety themselves. In fact, parents with anxiety have a 30% chance of their child also developing an anxiety disorder.
- Medical reasons, such as the effects of medication, symptoms of a different disease or the stress of a prolonged recovery or intensive surgery.
- Brain chemistry or imbalances in hormones.
- Withdrawal from substances.
“My anxiety is silent. You wouldn’t even notice a change on the outside, but I’m honestly so stressed I can’t even manage simple tasks. People call me lazy when in reality I’m just overwhelmed.”
10 Anxiety-Management Strategies
- Slow down your breathing
When you’re anxious your breathing gets faster. Try breathing in for a count of three, holding for three, then exhaling for a count of three. Do this for a few minutes.
- Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
With your eyes closed, slowly tense then release all the muscles in your body, working your way up from your toes to your face. This can help reduce the physical tension of anxiety.
- Practice mindfulness
Staying in the present moment, a skill you can improve through mindfulness or meditation practice, helps you stop obsessing about ‘what if’ and can slow down racing thoughts. Try focusing on the sounds around you or listing all the things you can see that start with a specific letter.
- Eat healthy
Aim to eat a diet full of colourful fruits, green leafy vegetables, wholegrain cereals and healthy proteins. It’s also important to eat at regular times (don’t let yourself get too hungry) and avoid caffeine and alcohol. Processed carbs like sweets or junk food can cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a crash, which can make your anxiety worse. Foods like eggs, avocado and walnuts are beneficial and make sure you’re getting enough magnesium, vitamin B and calcium.
- Stay active
Exercise has been proven to reduce anxiety symptoms, especially when combined with healthy lifestyle changes, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic. Try a combination of things like walking, swimming, running, weights, gardening or yoga and aim to spend some time in nature whenever you can.
- Connect with others
Anxiety can lead some people to shut themselves off, but human interaction is important for maintaining a healthy mood. With COVID-19 social distancing in place, make time to chat with friends and family via phone or video chat. And when restrictions are lifted, get a hug from a loved one. Physical touch releases oxytocin which increases happiness and reduces stress.
- Do something you enjoy
Spending time on a task that fully engages you can get your mind off worrying thoughts. Many people find colouring beneficial. You could also try preparing a meal, gardening, painting, spending time with animals, dancing, playing an instrument or any other activity that makes you happy or puts you in a state of ‘flow’.
- Schedule worry time
Designate a specific time in your day where you allow yourself to indulge in your worries. Keep it short, 10-15 minutes, and write down your worries or go over them in your head. Try to limit your worry time to this window and if thoughts come up at other times, remind yourself that you’ve got time later to focus on them.
- Challenge your fears
Anxiety can make you over-estimate dangers and underestimate your ability to handle them. Rather than jumping to the worst-case scenario, try to challenge your thinking and consider other outcomes. You can also take small steps to face your fears as learning that your fear isn’t likely to happen, or that you have the means to cope if it does, is the way through anxiety.
- Be kind to yourself
Above all, remember that having anxiety does not make you weak or inferior, and it doesn’t define you. You are not your anxiety. You have a mental health condition that many others also suffer from.
“If we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”
— Stephen Covey
Anxiety and Coronavirus
For anxiety sufferers, living in the time of a global pandemic can exacerbate symptoms and make life feel terrifying. It can also make accessing usual support networks, such as therapists, friends or family, more difficult. But there are still things you can do to minimise the stress of this time and give yourself the best chance at reducing symptoms.
COVID-19 has had an impact on everyone. The ‚social distancing’ rules have forced a lot of people to stay home and both physically and socially isolate themselves. This has lead to many people finding new ways to get their social fulfillment, whether it be more time on social media, video calling with friends, or putting their hands to work and be creative. But on the other hand, this has also led to those struggling with mental issues such as anxiety, to struggle with their problems even more. This situation has created a massive challenge for individuals with mental disorders of all kinds, all over the world.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or mental health, reach out to your preferred medical specialist and get the help they need.