FEELING anxious and stressed in some situations is a normal part of life as a human being.
In fact, our stress response (which involves symptoms like sweating and shortage of breath) is actually a useful mechanism to get us prepared for dealing with danger. Unfortunately, in the modern age our perception of “danger” is out of whack.
Anxiety is when our stress response is turned on constantly, so that we are fearful of everything we have to do on a daily basis. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But across Australia, one in four people live with this constant feeling of dread 24 hours a day. And the thing about anxiety is you can’t see it. You can clearly see if someone has a broken leg or a rash, but you can’t really see anxiety, so often we think that few people suffer from it.
We need to get talking about this. This week, Beyond Blue has reignited it’s anxiety awareness campaign. A video featuring Ben Mendelsohn is doing the rounds, aiming to make people aware that anxiety is more than stress, and that you can get help to reduce it.
As a psychologist, if I think of the hundreds of clients I have worked with over the years, anxiety would be the biggest-presenting condition I see. I see it in males and females, regardless of age. It doesn’t discriminate. I also see it outside of my role as a psychologist in people who don’t get help – people who live with these symptoms day in and day out, preventing them living a full life. This is because there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues.
Anxiety is an emotion that manifests itself into a physical response that allows us to react quickly to a real or perceived threat. This response is called the “fight or flight” mechanism. When the anxiety response is too intense or happens a lot, or if someone experiences repeated actual or perceived threats to their life or their significant others’ lives, it can lead to long-term anxiety conditions.
In other words, real life problems and worries (which perhaps are not necessarily real) can cause all sorts of problems to your body. The body is in fear mode all of the time.
People have amazing biological mechanisms that enable us to get out of danger quick smart. The stress response is a useful mechanism when we need to flee from a hungry lion, but less helpful in the modern age where we spend most of lives in a safe environment, like the office. People with anxiety act as though perceived fear is real – as real as a tiger stalking them in the wild. Raising awareness of the nature of anxiety and how common it is increases help-seeking behaviour.
There are so many tools and techniques to help reduce anxiety. People can learn to turn down the volume button on their brain to override the protector response. Their brain is doing it for a reason and the sooner people get help, the sooner they can get relief and start participating in their life again.
People don’t have to live with anxiety and fear. Anxiety should be tackled holistically and therapy is a good place to start, because therapy treats more than just the symptoms. Once people get an understanding of why anxiety keeps taking hold they can learn the cognitive tools and techniques to turn down the volume button on their brain to override it. They can learn to relax and learn different behaviours they can undertake in their lives to overcome it, like exercising and eating the right foods. There are so many ways to reduce anxiety, so there is no need for people to suffer in silence. People can quickly learn to get back in the driver’s seat of their lives.
But, the first step is to acknowledge that they have it.