Everybody feels nervous or worried sometimes, and this type of anxiety can help motivate us or warn us of danger. When that anxiety turns into an anxiety disorder it causes unhelpful anxiety that seriously affects our lives, including how we think, feel and act.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness and they can affect you at any age. People can become so afraid of things that they change the way they live, avoid public places, or even stop leaving their homes to avoid things they fear. They can also have physical symptoms and sleep problems. This can cause people to drop out of school or lose their jobs, careers or relationships.
We can be more likely to get an anxiety disorder if we use unhelpful ways, like drinking or using drugs, to cope with anxieties. Or we might look at things in a certain way, like thinking that everything has to be perfect. And sometimes they come from physical problems, but sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be a reason for the disorder.
The good news is that the Canadian Mental Health Association says “all mental illnesses can be treated.” Yay!
So, what are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are different types of mental illnesses. For instance, a phobia is an intense fear about something like an object, animal, or situation.
Panic disorder involves having repeated feelings of sudden intense fear that last for a short period of time. This intense fear is called a panic attack, which can also come with physical feelings like nausea, a racing heart, or shortness of breath.
Panic attacks can happen to us when something stressful happens; meanwhile, panic disorder causes us to have panic attacks for no reason. We become afraid of having more panic attacks and often worry that something bad will happen because of the panic attack.
Agoraphobia is being afraid of not finding help if we have a panic attack or become anxious. Social anxiety disorder involves someone avoiding social situations because they are so afraid of being embarrassed or judged negatively.
Sometimes we can constantly worry about everyday problems. If this lasts for more than six months, it is called a generalized anxiety disorder. This can include intense anxiety over minor things and having physical symptoms like muscle tension and sleep problems.
What can I do about anxiety disorders?
Many of us think that people with an anxiety disorder should just be able to “get over it” on their own, which causes some people to be ashamed to seek help. The truth is that anxiety disorders are real illnesses, so if you are concerned about your mental health, go see a doctor who will look at all possible causes of anxiety.
Good treatment for anxiety disorders will try to reduce unhelpful ways of coping while building healthy behaviors to help you manage anxiety. There are specific treatments for each anxiety disorder, but most use a combination of the following strategies.
Counselling: cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) shows you how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors work together and can be effective for anxiety. CBT is usually the first treatment tried for moderate anxiety. The counselor will try to change unhelpful behaviors and patterns of thinking that feed anxious thoughts, and replace them with helpful strategies.
Medication: anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication can help make anxious thoughts less frequent or intense, so it’s easier to learn good ways to cope with anxiety. Sometimes people take medication until their anxiety is controlled enough to try counselling.
Support groups: a good place to connect with people who understand what you’re going through and to share your experiences with or learn from them. You can attend groups in person or on-line if there are no support groups in your area.
Self-help strategies: there are many ways people manage anxiety, such as stress management, problem-solving, relaxation and mindfulness. Many people find meditation quiets the overactive mind. It’s also important to develop good habits like connecting with others, exercising, eating well, and having fun.
Breathing techniques: during times of high stress, take a deep breath through the nose, hold for a count of seven, and slowly exhale through the mouth. Repeat three more times. Take another breath while holding your arms out. Exhale slowly while shaking your hands and arms. Then hang onto something, breath in and shake your left leg while breathing out. Repeat this with your right leg.
Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique is done when you feel you are becoming stressed. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. Repeat three more times for a total of four breaths. This will lower your anxiety and help with sleeping.
Apparently, the most important part is holding your breath for seven seconds, which allows oxygen to fill your lungs, circulate throughout the body, and produce a relaxing effect in the body.
Helping a loved one
It’s often difficult to support a loved one who has an anxiety disorder, because we might not understand why they feel or act a certain way. For instance, people with anxiety disorders may do things a certain way or avoid things or situations, which makes us feel frustrated or confused. Because we don’t want to upset our loved one, we may take part in their behaviors or adjust our own behaviors.
Remind yourself that the illness is the problem and that their anger, frustration, or behaviors related to anxiety are nobody’s fault. Be patient because it takes time for them to learn and practice new coping strategies. In fact, offer to help them practice the new skills.
Listen and offer support to your loved one, but avoid pushing unwanted advice. This can be a trying time for all involved, so set boundaries and be sure to get support for yourself if you need it. And consider family counselling if other family members are affected by the anxiety disorder.
Finally, contact a community organization to learn more about support and resources in your area. And remember, your loved one should recover … in time.