Understanding and managing anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a term used to describe a broad range of reactions to excessive fears and worries, such as panic attacks, phobias, obsessive-compulsive behaviours and post-traumatic stress. Anxiety is usually separated into three elements:

  • the physical sensations such as increased heart rate
  • the emotions you get while experiencing them
  • the thoughts that enter your mind at the time.

Anxiety can be also be a natural and necessary reaction that aids our survival, and stops us from taking excessive risk. It can also be the temporary effect of stress or worry about a particular issue, but like anything, in excess, it can be problematic and become just as disabling as a physical illness.

The common theme within any form of anxiety is the effect it has on the body, and the physical symptoms that affect daily life. These physical sensations such as heart palpitations or a knot in our stomach, can result in further and more exaggerated sensations of anxiety. This vicious cycle can make anxiety difficult to escape from.

How does anxiety affect people?

The majority of us will experience anxiety at some point in our lives. Common events such as job interviews, first dates, work presentations or speeches can all be a source of anxiety.

It is common to feel worried or sad about life events, challenges and issues. There are of course, events which happen which we have less control over. However, if worry casts a shadow over your everyday life, this could be a sign of more serious anxiety, or depression, or a combination of both.

For some people, anxiety can occur temporarily which dissipates once the worry, or stress subsides. However, for others, the feelings and physical sensations can become much more serious, and can affect their lives, and the lives of their loved ones.

How anxiety impacts body

Depending on the severity of the anxiety being experienced, the body can be affected in different ways. Below are some common physical symptoms of anxiety.

  • dizziness
  • heart palpitations
  • aching or tension in your muscles
  • shaking or trembling
  • dry mouth
  • excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath.

Causes of anxiety

Everyday life and habits

Lifestyle can be a common determining factor of anxiety, and how well you manage it. Often feeling exhausted, tired or stressed can lead to anxiety. Being in a job where you are required to work long hours or are under pressure to perform can lead to increased levels of anxiety. Pressures at home from family, or difficulties with studying could also contribute to anxiety. Worrying more about things could be part of who you are, or a mixture of the experiences in your life and your past. At times you may be unaware of why you are anxious, and there may not seem to be an obvious cause.

Past or childhood experiences

If you experienced something distressing or traumatic in your past, you might feel anxious about facing similar situations again in case they raise old feelings of distress, panic or fear. Feeling anxious can also be something that was learned early on in your life. For example, if your family or main carers tended to see the world as hostile, aggressive, worrying or dangerous, you may have learned to feel the same way, and could now be bringing those past feeling into your current life, leading to anxiety, worry and fear.

Other common causes of anxiety

  • past experiences in life
  • abuse or bullying in your life
  • legal and illegal drugs you may be taking
  • your everyday life, habits or diet
  • your physical or mental health
  • anxiety can run in families and could be the result of the genes you inherited
  • learned or copied behaviour
  • life threatening accidents, operation or illness.

How anxiety can be managed

What's the worst that can happen?

Even if a presentation, call or a conversation does not go to plan, and we are left worried or anxious, the likelihood is that you and the world will survive. When we become anxious about anything, it can be helpful to think through the worst possible result and sometimes the worst that can happen is a panic attack, which approached the right way, will dissipate over time.

If you start to feel your heartbeat racing more quickly, and your palms becoming sweaty, then the best thing to do is to be with the anxiety, stay where you are and simply feel the panic without trying to distract yourself. Placing the palm of your hand on your stomach and breathing slowly and deeply can help soothe the body and the mind.

Other ways to manage anxiety

  • talking to someone that you trust
  • shifting your focus
  • listening to music that calms you
  • avoiding caffeine
  • physical exercise
  • keeping a diary of your thoughts, feelings and emotions
  • eating healthy food.

How therapy and counselling help with anxiety

Anxiety does not follow any pattern or rule, and as such, affects each person differently. Therapy and counselling helps you to understand your anxiety as it pertains to you specifically, and not generally. Therapy and counselling can offer assistance in understanding your anxiety and its origins, and can offer you practical ways of managing periods of anxiety when they occur.

Some of the ways in which therapy and counselling can assist with anxiety are:

  • Assisting you in defining your most common anxieties.
  • Providing you with tools and strategies to bring about healthy change.
  • Identifying the underlying factors associated with your anxiety.
  • Understanding your limits and the triggers for periods of anxiety.
  • Allow you a safe space to explore and confront your fears, and learn to tolerate them.
  • Providing emotional support and reassurance.
  • Allowing you to consider the wider impact anxiety has on your relationships.
  • Understanding the impact anxiety has on your self-esteem and your own expectations.
  • Formulating a personalised plan for your situation and circumstances.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua is an experienced Bereavement Counsellor Therapist with particular expertise working with sudden or abrupt loss. He has helped many people work through the pain of their loss. Joshua also has experience of working with a wide range of issues such as loneliness, isolation, depression, relationship difficulties and anxiety.

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