Feeling worried is a natural part of life, an emotion that helps to trigger our ‘fight or flight’ response – our body’s way of preparing us for a situation when we might need to react quickly.
A small amount of stress can actually be beneficial, such as in an exam setting, where it has been shown it can help boost mental performance.
For some people, however, those feelings of worry and anxiety become so overwhelming that they can have a crippling effect on day-to-day life. Imagine not feeling able to go to the supermarket, socialise with friends or even open your own front door – real problems that my patients have shared with me in clinic.
Anxiety not only has a negative impact on our mental health, but our physical health can suffer too. Appetite changes, sleeplessness, palpitations and shortness of breath are all common physical symptoms of anxiety and panic.
Difficulty sleeping is one of the more common symptoms patients with anxiety may experience. It is estimated that up to 40% of adults may have difficulties with sleeplessness at some point in their life. Those with anxiety might find their minds more active at night with so-called ‘binge thinking’, either running over previous events in their minds (a process called ruminating) or worrying about future events that may – or may not – happen (also known as catastrophising).
It’s a common misconception that anxiety is always because of some stressful life event – such as a busy job, a change in financial circumstances or a change in relationship status. Sometimes it’s those smaller everyday niggles that play havoc with our worries and fears.
Tackling stress and anxiety
The good news is that there are plenty of treatment options when it comes to tackling stress and anxiety. Although some patients may require prescription medication, there are lots of tools that can be useful either on their own or alongside other treatments.
Talking therapies are a crucial part of tackling any mental health problem. This is especially true for anxiety. Talking about our worries can help to share the burden, help to identify any reasons for worrying and explore how we may resolve them.
Often, most of us will display tell-tale signs that our stress levels are on the up – perhaps we might be more irritable at work or home, or we might start to avoid certain situations. Talking therapies are a great way to teach us what our own ‘warning signs’ are, so we can take early action.
A specific form of talking therapy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), designed to help reprogram pathways in the brain that might lead to feelings of anxiety. CBT can be offered face-to-face with a counsellor, but there are an increasing number of free and fee-paying online CBT services that can be a great starting point.
Mindfulness is a newer technique, adapted from Buddhism, which can be a useful self-help technique for anxiety and stress. The aim of mindfulness is to focus on the here and now, rather than looking to the past or worrying about the future.
Relaxation techniques and breathing exercises might not sound cutting edge when it comes to treating anxiety, but they can be beneficial if you have a history of panic attacks.
Many people accept stress as part of normal life, but if it is starting to interfere with how you want to live your life, speak with your GP.
Dr Alexandra Phelan is a working NHS GP and member of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service. Visit www.pharmacy2u.co.uk/onlinedoctor for further information.