It is not unusual to experience feelings of anxiety or worry from time to time but, for some people, the feelings can be ongoing and debilitating.
Anxiety is a normal part of life, and so it might not always be simple to distinguish when it might have developed into an unhealthy preoccupation.
Sindisiwe Mlotshwa, a counselling psychologist who practices at Akeso Parktown in Johannesburg, says anxiety typically consists of physical, emotional and mental reactions. In moderation, the reactions are normal and might even be helpful.
“In small doses, anxiety can help protect us from danger and help focus our attention when tasks need to be completed. However, when the reactions occur too frequently and are more severe, they can begin to affect our work performance, relationships and quality of life,” Mlotshwa says.
When worry and anxiety begin to manifest to the point where they are becoming unmanageable, the person could be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Mlotshwa says that while there are various anxiety disorders, if your anxious experiences are becoming intolerable, you should take note of these signs:
- Uncontrollable worry
- Excessive nervousness
- Sleep problems
- Muscle tension
- Poor concentration
- Increased heart rate
- Upset stomach
- Avoidance of situations that may cause fear, or the fear itself
“When these symptoms become both too frequent and severe for those affected to manage, it is important to seek professional help,” Mlotshwa says.
“Anxiety disorders share elements of extreme fear and anxiety where the person’s behaviour changes because of these anxious thoughts and feelings.
“For example, if a person has anxiety about driving in traffic, this may be helpful if it promotes more cautious driving behaviour. If anxiety is making you so cautious that you are a danger to other drivers by driving too slow, fast or indecisively for instance, or if you avoid driving at all, then the anxiety has become a problem.
“If the person’s anxiety leads them to stop going to work or visiting friends and family because they do not want to travel in a vehicle, then the anxiety is disrupting their life. It would suggest the possibility of an anxiety disorder, which may require professional mental health support to overcome.”
Mlotshwa says there are multiple types of anxiety disorders, including social anxieties or social phobia, separation anxieties and panic attacks.
“Fortunately, professional help is available and there are various ways of treating and navigating anxiety, which may be useful either on their own or in combination.
“Exercise can be very helpful, as it promotes the healthy production of serotonin and endorphins to help regulate anxious feelings. These natural hormones promote feelings of calm and well-being, and can assist in managing the symptoms. Exercise is often recommended in conjunction with other interventions, such as psychotherapy or medication prescribed by a psychiatrist.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the techniques psychologists most frequently use when treating anxiety disorders.
“Through CBT, unhealthy thinking patterns that elevate anxiety levels are identified and challenged. Often, CBT will also include elements of exposure therapy and relaxation techniques.”
Exposure therapy, which should only ever be undertaken with a trained professional, involves slow and gradual exposure to whatever is triggering the client’s anxiety, with the aim of diminishing their distress.
“Relaxation techniques can also assist in managing the symptoms of anxiety. These include practices such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindful sensory engagements. Through focusing on external and physical experiences or senses, we can help the person to step out of their internal emotional experiences. Once the client is comfortable with relaxation techniques, they can be applied whenever needed, without the presence of a guiding professional.
“Psychiatrists may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help address the chemical causes of anxiety within the body. Medication should only ever be taken exactly as prescribed, and it is important not to stop taking psychiatric medicine without first consulting your treating doctor, even if you are feeling better.
“Anxiety disorders can be devastating, but the good news is that help is available. It is possible to overcome anxiety and reclaim your life.”
In the event of a psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day.