"Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things." - Epictetus c. 100 AD
Who gets anxiety?
Around one in seven adults will be affected by a diagnosed anxiety disorder this year, and as many as one in four of us will experience an anxiety disorder before we die. Anxiety has always affected people's lives, so perhaps increasing numbers reporting the condition may be explained by an increased willingness in the population to seek help for mental health conditions. But there is a consensus that most of us have too much stress in our lives, especially between the ages of 18 and 55, when we are at our most productive and bringing up families.
More people report experiencing anxiety than ever before; this, despite all the political, social and technological changes that have occurred in the last 30 years that were supposed to make our lives better. More time and money is spent on research with tens of thousands of papers having been published on the subject and several scientific journals devoted entirely to it.
So, what is anxiety?
Anxiety is a warning, a premonition of approaching danger and a preparation of your body to meet it. It is the feeling you get when an ancient centre in your brain — which monitors incredible amounts of information passing through it from all of your five senses — detects possible danger, and triggers a chain of almost instantaneous changes to your vascular system, endocrine system, and nervous systems which are known collectively as the stress reaction. Animals developed this reaction as far back in history as the Age of the Dinosaurs. It makes you hyper alert; focuses your attention exclusively on the danger; liberates large amounts of energy from stores around the body; diverts blood away from non-essential functions to your big muscles; and prepares your body to preserve your life either by running away or by fighting for your survival. The stress reaction is a great asset if you're a gazelle being chased by a lion or you're a foot soldier in a war zone; less helpful, perhaps, if you're late for an appointment and stuck in traffic, or your mobile phone's battery is about to die. The acute anxiety created by these and similar events is not prolonged or disabling; although unpleasant, despite being up tight, you can function reasonably normally and, when the stressor is gone, your body returns to its pre-stressed state and the feeling of anxiety disappears.
Anxiety disorder, however, is a chronic condition which produces affects that cause distress and, because of the unrelenting worry, restlessness, hyper vigilance, disturbed sleep, irritability, inability to concentrate, it reduces your ability to function normally. If your job is insecure, or money is scarce and you're threatened with losing your home, or you've experienced the loss of a loved one, your stressor is continually present and so your anxiety may persist for as long as you are stressed. If left untreated this form of anxiety, may start to take over your life and the lives of those closest to you as well. When this happens, it is important to get help early to avoid the situations being made worse and compounding the existing stress. Anxiety is different to other medical conditions... worrying about diabetes doesn't make it worse, but worrying about another anxiety attack often leads to an increase in anxiety. It becomes a cycle of escalating distress caused by the fear of fear.
Diagnosed anxiety disorders fall into four main types: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety, and other specific Phobias, but Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are also conditions where anxiety is present.
Alleviation of anxiety
Because anxiety is the feeling you get when your body becomes stressed, you can alleviate the feeling by handling the stress better. Ways of handling stress include: finding an outlet for frustration; social support; distraction; and control. But to obtain relief from stress, you must eliminate the stressor.