Anxiety is the word we use for fears of the threat of something going wrong in the future, not now.
Anxiety can last for a short time and then go away when the thing that worried you is over, but it can last much longer and disrupt your life. Constant anxiety can affect your ability to eat, sleep or concentrate. It can prevent you from enjoying life, traveling or even leaving the house for work or school.
When anxiety stops you from doing the things you want or need to do, it can also affect your health. Some people are overcome with fear and want to avoid situations that might frighten them or make them anxious. It can be difficult to break this cycle, but there are many ways to do it. You can learn to feel less fear and deal with anxiety so that it doesn’t stop you from living your life.
What makes you afraid?
Many things make us afraid.
Fear of some things – like fire – can protect you. What you are afraid of and how you act when you are afraid of something can be different for each person. Knowing what you fear and why can be the first step in overcoming anxiety.
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What makes you anxious?
Because anxiety is a type of fear, the things we described above about fear also apply to anxiety.
The word ‘anxiety’ is commonly used to describe worry or when fear persists over time, often for no apparent reason. Anxiety is when the fear is about something in the future or something that might happen, rather than what is happening right now.
Anxiety is a word often used by healthcare professionals to describe persistent fear. The ways you feel when you are scared and anxious are very similar, since the underlying emotion is the same.
What do fear and anxiety feel like?
When you feel scared or seriously anxious, your mind and body work very fast.
These are some of the things that can happen:
- Your heart is beating very fast – it may seem irregular
- You breathe very fast
- Your muscles are weak
- You sweat a lot
- Your stomach is churning or you have a loose bowel feeling
- It is difficult for you to concentrate on anything else
- You feel dizzy
- You feel frozen in place
- You can’t eat
- You sweat hot and cold
- You have a dry mouth
- You get very tight muscles
These things happen because your body, sensing fear, prepares you for an emergency. It allows blood flow to the muscles, increases blood sugar and gives you the mental ability to focus on what your body perceives as a threat.
With anxiety, in the long term, you may experience some of the symptoms listed above, as well as a more nagging sense of dread. You may become irritable, have trouble sleeping, get a headache, or have trouble working and planning for the future; you might have problems with sex and you might lose your self-confidence.
Why do I feel this way when I’m not in any real danger?
Early humans needed quick, strong fear-inducing responses because they were often in situations of physical danger. However, we no longer face the same threats in modern life.
Despite this, our minds and bodies still work in the same way as our early ancestors and we have the same reactions to modern worries about paying bills, work and social situations. But we cannot run away from these problems or physically attack them!
The physical feelings of fear can be scary in and of themselves – especially if you’re experiencing them without knowing why, or if they seem out of proportion to the situation. Instead of alerting you to danger and preparing you to respond to it, your fear or anxiety may arise for any perceived threat, which may be imaginary or minor. This can cause you more problems than whatever started the reaction in the first place.
Why doesn’t my fear go away and I don’t feel normal again?
Fear can be a one-time feeling when faced with something unknown. But it can also be a daily, long-term problem – even if you can’t pinpoint why.
Some people feel a constant feeling of anxiety all the time, without any particular trigger. There are many triggers for fear in everyday life, and you can’t always pinpoint why you’re scared or how likely you are to get hurt. Even if you know how out of proportion the fear is, the emotional part of your brain continues to send danger signals to your body. Sometimes you need mental and physical ways to deal with fear and anxiety.
What is a panic attack?
HAVE panic attack is when you feel overwhelmed by physical and mental feelings of fear – the signs are listed under ‘How does fear and anxiety feel?’.
People who have panic attacks say they have difficulty breathing and may worry they are having a heart attack or losing control of their body.
If you have symptoms like these, you should talk to a health care professional right away to make sure there are no other underlying causes.
What is a phobia?
A phobia is an extreme fear of a certain animal, thing, place or situation.
People with phobias have an overwhelming need to avoid any contact with a specific cause of anxiety or fear. The thought of coming into contact with the cause of the phobia makes you anxious or panicky.
How will I know if I need help?
Fear and anxiety are something we will all experience now and then. Only when it is severe and long-lasting can it become a mental health problem.
If you have been feeling anxious for several weeks, if your fears or phobias seem to be taking over your life, or if you have panic attacks, it would be a good idea to see a doctor for help. Alternatively, try one of the websites or numbers listed at the bottom of this page.
How can I help myself?
Face your fear if you can
If you always avoid situations that scare you, it could prevent you from doing the things you want or need to do, causing you to miss out on life. This means you won’t be able to check if the situation is as bad as you expect, so you also miss the opportunity to figure out how to manage your fears and reduce your anxiety. Anxiety problems tend to increase if you get into this pattern.
Exposing your fears can be an effective way to overcome that anxiety. You can try setting small, achievable goals for yourself to face your fears.
Get to know yourself
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. Keep an anxiety journal to record how you feel, what causes you to feel anxious, and what happens. When you understand how anxiety affects you, you will be able to better manage your feelings.
You could take a list of things with you to help you when you are likely to be scared or anxious. This can be an effective way to address the underlying beliefs behind your anxiety.
Talk to a trusted friend or family member
It is very common to feel silly or even embarrassed because of fears and anxieties. This can lead us to hide what is happening from those we are close to. But there’s no need to feel that way, and you don’t have to overcome your anxieties alone! If you have a friend or family member who you trust will respond in a supportive way, it’s often better to open up about what’s going on. The act of talking about something can help reduce your anxiety levels and encourage you to get additional support if needed.
Try increasing the amount physical activity you work. Exercise requires some concentration, and this can take your mind off fear and anxiety. Remember, the activity doesn’t have to be vigorous; gentle stretching, seated exercises or walking are good for you.
Learning relaxation techniques can help you with the mental and physical feelings of fear. Just dropping your shoulders and taking a deep breath can help. Or imagine yourself in a relaxing place.
You can also try complementary therapies or exercises such as massage, t’ai chi, yoga, mindfulness techniques or meditation.
Breathing technique 4-7-8
Close your mouth and breathe in quietly through your nose, counting to four in your head. Hold your breath and count to seven. Exhale through your mouth, making a whistling sound as you count to eight. Repeat three more times for a total of four breathing cycles.
Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and try to avoid too much sugar as the resulting drops in blood sugar can make you feel anxious. Try to avoid drinking too much tea and coffee, as caffeine can also increase anxiety levels.
Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation
It is very common for people to drink when they are nervous. Some people call alcohol ‘Dutch courage’, but it’s not good for you and the effects of alcohol can make you feel even more scared or anxious.
If you’re religious or spiritual, it can give you a way to feel connected to something bigger than yourself. Faith can provide a way to cope with everyday stress, and attending places of worship and other religious groups can connect you with a valuable support network.
How can I get help?
Talk therapylike counseling or Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are very effective for people with anxiety problems. This includes computerized cognitive behavioral therapy (CCBT), which guides you through a series of self-help exercises on a screen. Contact your GP to find out more.
Drug treatment is used to provide short-term relief, not to get to the root of the anxiety problem. Medicines may be most helpful when combined with other treatments or support.
You can learn a lot about managing anxiety by asking other people who have experienced it. Local support groups or self-help groups bring people with similar experiences together so they can hear each other’s stories, share advice and encourage each other to try new ways to manage feelings of anxiety. Your doctor, library or local Citizens Advice Bureau will have details of support groups near you.