What is Anxiety?
I want to start by differentiating between anxiety and clinical anxiety. When I say 'anxiety', I am referring to the everyday experience of feeling anxious or nervous. When I say clinical anxiety, I am referring to anxiety disorders; a clinical level of anxiety that interferes with daily life.
We all, unless we are extremely lucky, experience anxious feelings from time to time. They are a normal and adaptive part of life. It isn't maladaptive or a cause for concern if we are anxious about our child's first day at school or having to stand in front of a room of people and deliver a speech. Feeling anxious is okay, and is nothing to be ashamed of.
Anxiety, in its non-clinical form, can be and has been adaptive. If we think in evolutionary terms, the cavemen and hunter-gatherers of the world would have been easy prey if they went about their hunting and gathering without any fear. Hyper Vigilance allowed these cavemen to hunt whilst being aware of the danger of being hunted.
Tense muscles prepared Homo sapiens for the fight or flight response. In preparation for either fighting or running away, the body diverts energy to only the most essential functions. The muscles tense up and the heart rate increases. Bloody rushes to the heart, leaving the extremities, which can lead to tingling sensations in the hands and feet or even dizziness and fainting.
Not being able to sleep allowed cavemen to stay up and protect their loved ones in times of danger. Nowadays we might see this when a loved one is in the hospital and we find the energy to stay awake through the night.
Anxiety was, once upon a time, adaptive. And it can still be adaptive today. When we walk down the street with our young children, we are constantly checking to make sure they aren't too close to the edge of the pavement or that they haven't run too far ahead. When we are about to board a plane we may feel anxious about our own safety. This is okay, in my opinion, as long as it doesn't get in the way of us living our lives.
I personally get anxious about flying. I sit on the plane next to my partner and clutch his hand during take-off and landing as if I was a woman in labour. His fingers are almost broken by the time we reach our destination, but we always reach our destination. I haven't yet let it get in the way of a good holiday.
The day that it does is that day that I would seek professional help.
To be fair to my partner, he has never complained about the lack of circulation to his fingers at these times!
When does anxiety become maladaptive?
Anxiety can become maladaptive and a cause for concern when it interferes with your life. If anxiety regularly stops you from completing your commute, prevents you from attending social functions (that you actually wanted to attend), causes you multiple sleepless nights and/or panic attacks, or even stops you from leaving the house altogether, then it is time to seek help.
Clinical anxiety can cause severe chest pains, that can feel like you are having a heart attack, and some people take themselves to A&E because of it. Clinical anxiety can also cause you to avoid certain people or places or behaviours that might trigger a panic attack. This is fine when these are things like a particular bar on the other side of town or dark alleys at night, but when this includes things like your English classroom or your doctor's office, life can get a bit tricky.
Attempting to avoid every day or compulsory things, such as school, can lead to a spiral of avoidance. Avoiding being seen during English period so that teachers won't know that you are skipping class; avoiding school altogether when just skipping class doesn't work anymore; avoiding your parents in the mornings so that they aren't aware that you are skipping school; and so on.
Seeking help when anxiety begins to get in the way of your life is the best advice that I can offer. Your GP will be able to recognise the signs and can refer you to the correct mental health practitioner or can prescribe you with anti-anxiety medication.
Anxiety and Depression
Trying to live with the symptoms of anxiety can take its toll and very often can lead to symptoms of depression. There is a high prevalence of anxiety and depression developing one after another. The symptoms of anxiety and depression can leave the individual feeling as if they are trapped. The symptoms of anxiety can cause constant worry, agitation, and nervous energy, however, the symptoms of depression can cause a lack of energy, a heaviness, and a lack of motivation. Therefore the individual feels so anxious and worked up but lacks the energy to do anything about it.
As Gemma Correll drew in a recent Instagram post (@gemmacorrell), "Too depressed to move, too anxious to stay still"
The road to recovery is similar for both anxiety and depression and includes options such as talking therapies, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, medication, exercise, relaxation techniques, and so on.
Warning signs that you shouldn't ignore
The following are signs of a mental health crisis that we should all look out for in our loved ones, but especially in those who already unfertilised from things such as anxiety and/or depression.
Poor personal care; I.e. Refusing to shower, refusing to get out of bed, refusing to eat, and so on
Sudden and extreme changes in mood, including becoming violent and aggressive
Appearing confused or having hallucinations
Discussing suicide or not having a reason to live (this could be very obvious or it could manifest in a general sense of hopelessness and helplessness, and/or a lack of future plans).
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