Mental health

Understanding anxiety, its causes and symptoms

Anxiety is a common feeling which most of us will have experienced, perhaps more so recently as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to affect the way we’re living our lives. At Pharmacy2U, prescriptions for anxiety medication accounted for approximately 20% of our patients between March and June of 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Here’s our guide to anxiety, its causes, and how it can be managed. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of being worried or afraid, or generally uneasy. When suffering with anxiety, you may feel tense, nervous, tearful or unable to relax. You’ll often find yourself worrying about the past or the future, and might struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Other symptoms can include a fast or irregular heartbeat, dizziness or lightheadedness, headaches, chest pains, or a loss of appetite.

Prolonged periods of anxiety can make it difficult to look after yourself properly as well as making it harder to enjoy life. This can affect your professional and personal relationships as well as making it hard to enjoy new opportunities.

Although anxiety is common, if you feel that it’s affecting your quality of life then it might be time to take action.

What causes anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural and primitive brain response which is triggered when humans feel they’re under threat, and is common if there’s been a big change in your life or if you’re going through something stressful. The feeling of stress, fear or anxiety will often trigger the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which aims to make us feel alert so we can move quickly and to get blood pumping to areas of the body where it’s required.

There might not always be a clearly defined reason for your anxiety, but it can be linked to factors including:

  • A change in your life circumstances
  • Financial, family, or relationship problems
  • Pre-existing mental health issues
  • Past events in your life
  • A specific phobia you may have, such as a fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia)
  • A medication you are taking

When does anxiety become a mental health condition?

Anxiety can become a mental health problem when it starts to affect your ability to live a full life. If your anxiety feels intense and lasts for long periods, or if your reactions to situations feel out of proportion, then you should seek help.

If you’re experiencing particularly intense and sudden feelings of anxiety and fear then you might be having a panic attack.

What is a panic attack and how can they be managed?

A panic attack is a type of fear response where the body’s normal response to stress, danger or excitement is heightened. The physical symptoms of a panic attack can come on quickly and for no apparent reason. They can include:

  • A racing heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Sweating, trembling and shaking
  • Feeling either very hot or cold

A panic attack can usually last between 5 and 20 minutes, and although they can be frightening, they shouldn’t cause physical harm. If you’re experiencing a panic attack, there are a few actions you can take to help manage its severity, such as:

  • Concentrate on breathing in and out slowly, whilst counting to 5
  • Focus on your senses by cuddling something soft or eating a mint flavoured sweet
  • Stamping on the spot has also helped for some people

 Can anxiety be managed?

There are different ways to manage anxiety, including the use of coping strategies which you can try yourself.

Firstly, talking with a family member or friend can often help alleviate feelings of anxiety. You could also speak to a GP or health professional if you’d rather speak to someone outside your support network. Groups such as the Samaritans and Anxiety UK are also on hand.

You can make changes to your lifestyle which can increase your resilience to anxiety in the longer term, such as:

If you’re feeling anxious then you should try to avoid cigarettes, alcohol and gambling as they can affect the levels of certain chemicals in your brain and may exacerbate the condition. When tackling the root causes of anxiety, set yourself small, manageable targets and don’t try to do too much at once. You can read further information on self care for anxiety here.

Counselling and other talking therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) are also very effective. You can find private practitioners locally by searching online, or your GP will be able to refer you to a local therapist.

Managing anxiety through medication

If your anxiety persists, then your GP may prescribe a medicine to help you manage the symptoms. Medicines that are prescribed are usually classed as antidepressants, and these can also be very helpful for anxiety although it does take a few weeks for them to start working.

You can read our medication guide about some of the treatments GPs will commonly prescribe for anxiety, stress and depression.

Phil Day By Phil Day Superintendent Pharmacist Published 01/09/2020