Everyone tends to feel anxious now and then – it’s a normal emotional reaction. Many people feel nervous when faced with a particularly difficult problem at work; students feel that way before taking a test, and in general everyone feels anxious when making a life changing decision.

Anxiety disorders are a different kettle of fish entirely. They can cause such distress that it interferes with your ability to lead a normal life.

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What Are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?

There are several kinds, including:

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Panic disorder. People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking. It can feel like you’re having a heart attack or “going crazy.”

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Social anxiety disorder. Also called social phobia, this involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.

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Specific phobias. These are intense fears of a specific object or situation, such as heights or flying. The level of fear is usually inappropriate to the situation and may cause you to avoid common, everyday situations.

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Generalized anxiety disorder. This is excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there’s little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.

What Are the Causes of Anxiety Disorders?

The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but anxiety disorders — like other forms of mental illness — are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress.

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Anxiety attacks and their symptoms

Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks, are episodes of intense panic or fear. Anxiety attacks usually occur suddenly and without warning. Sometimes there’s an obvious trigger—getting stuck in a lift, for example, or thinking about the big speech you have to give in front of many people—but in other cases, the attacks come out of the blue.

Many people find that anxiety attacks usually peak within 10 minutes, and they rarely last more than 30 minutes. But during that short time, the terror can be so severe that you feel as if you’re about to die or totally lose control. The physical symptoms of anxiety attacks are themselves so frightening that many people believe they’re having a heart attack. After an anxiety attack is over, you may be worried about having another one, particularly in a public place where help isn’t available or you can’t easily escape.

Symptoms of anxiety attacks may include:

Surge of overwhelming panic

Feeling of losing control or going crazy

Heart palpitations or chest pain

Feeling like you’re going to pass out

Trouble breathing or choking sensation

Hyperventilation

Hot flashes or chills

Trembling or shaking

Nausea or stomach cramps

Feeling detached or unreal

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How to seek help :

If your stress levels are through the roof, think about how you can bring your life back into balance. There may be responsibilities you can give up, turn down, or delegate to others. If you’re feeling isolated or unsupported, find someone you trust to confide in. Just talking about your worries can make them seem less frightening.

Take care of yourself. Connect with others. Loneliness and isolation set the stage for anxiety. Decrease your vulnerability by reaching out to others. Make it a point to see friends, join a self-help or support group, or share your worries and concerns with a trusted loved one.

Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing can reduce anxiety symptoms and increase feelings of relaxation and emotional well-being.

Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days.

Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can exacerbate anxious thoughts and feelings, so try to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night. If you struggle with sleep, adopting smart sleep habits can make a big difference.

Be smart about caffeine and alcohol. If you struggle with anxiety, you may want to consider reducing your caffeine intake or cutting it out completely. Same with alcohol, which can make anxiety worse.

Train your brain to stay calm. Worrying is a mental habit you can learn how to break. Strategies such as creating a worry period, challenging anxious thoughts, and learning to accept uncertainty can significantly reduce anxiety and fear.

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In addition to the telephone counselling offered by a number of centres around the country, our national counselling line at Lifeline South Africa receives an average of 200 calls a day, allowing callers to discuss a range of challenges from trauma and suicide to relationship issues. If you feel as though you cannot cope, that anxiety is messing up your daily life, or that you just cannot handle it anymore, remember that we are here for you and our line operates 24 hours/7 days a week, feel free to call us for more information and counselling.