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Coping with anxiety

Anxiety is something that most people experience at some point in their lives. Some people feel anxious as their wedding day approaches, or about taking an exam or the health of someone they care about. However, sometimes anxiety can persist and become a mental health problem that makes it difficult to do everyday activities. Regardless of whether you're experiencing short-term anxiety or an anxiety disorder, there are ways to cope.

Why do we experience anxiety?

Understanding why people experience anxiety is the first step towards learning how to cope with it. Anxiety is part of a natural survival response that prepares your mind and body to react swiftly when in danger. This is referred to as the 'flight or fight' response. Physical changes occur to your body during this response. Stress hormones such as adrenaline are released into the bloodstream, affecting your organs. You breathe more rapidly and your heart beats more quickly to supply oxygen and blood to your muscles, which become tense to enable you to either run away or fight. At the same time you sweat to help you cool down.

This 'flight or fight' response was useful in human's early history when hunting or facing predators, and it is still useful when in danger, helping you to move out of the path of an approaching car or react quickly when a child is about to be hurt, for example. However, anxiety could be triggered by situations in which you don't need a quick response, such as:

  • Death of a spouse, close family member or friend
  • Divorce or separation from a partner
  • Major health change in yourself or a family member
  • Going into hospital
  • Getting married
  • Having a baby
  • Change in finances or work situation
  • Moving or home renovation work
  • Holidays and family get-togethers.

The symptoms of anxiety in these and other similar situations don't help you to deal with the problem, especially if they persist or are out of proportion for the situation that has triggered them. Symptoms can include:

  • Heart racing, sometimes palpitations (an irregular heartbeat)
  • Fast breathing
  • Feeling sick
  • Shaking (tremors)
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Headache
  • Tense muscles
  • Pins and needles
  • Loss of appetite
  • 'Butterflies' or churning in your tummy
  • Needing the toilet more or less often.

Anxiety can also cause psychological problems. It can make you worry too much, make you feel irritable, tense or on edge, and affect your ability to concentrate and sleep. Anxious people often expect the worst to happen and their minds can jump from one worry to another, creating a cycle of worry and anxiety. They may snap at people easily, get flustered quickly and find it difficult to relax.

When anxiety begins to affect the things you want to do in your everyday life, it becomes a problem. For example, you may avoid certain situations that could make you feel anxious such as going to a party or applying for a job. You may procrastinate because you struggle to stay focused.

If anxiety lasts for a long time and you are constantly worrying, and you often experience the physical or psychological effects of anxiety, or even have panic attacks, you may have an anxiety disorder. Types of anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.

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