ANXIETY – a problem worth worrying about

Anxiety is a normal physiological response to help the body respond to a threat. Often described as the ‘fight or flight’ response, anxiety is there to keep us out of dangerous situations and prompt us to solve problems. Feeling anxious can assist you when the going gets tough.

ANXIETY – a problem worth worrying about

Anxiety is a normal physiological response to help the body respond to a threat. Often described as the ‘fight or flight’ response, anxiety is there to keep us out of dangerous situations and prompt us to solve problems. Feeling anxious can assist you when the going gets tough.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition, affecting 1 in 7 of the population (AIHW – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). It is estimated that over 2.3 million Australians had an anxiety disorder in the previous 12 months (2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing).

The demands of daily life can lead to people feeling anxious or experiencing anxiety. It is important to remember that anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. You will feel anxious when there is a stressor of some type occurring in your life. Speaking in public, going for a job interview and sitting exams, are all potentially high-stress situations where anxiety can play a part in keeping you focussed and on track with your task. Being anxious in response to a stressor is normal and can enable you to resolve that situation successfully.

However, like most things, too much anxiety can be harmful. How can we recognise when normal anxiety becomes dysfunctional, and a disorder? There are several signs that can show you that your anxiety may have become a problem:

A –Anxious or nervous for most of the day

N – No control over the worry, worried even in the absence of stressors

X – eXcessive physical symptoms e.g. lightheadedness, sweating, trembling, heart-pounding, headaches, can’t breathe, frequently going to the toilet, nausea, vomiting

I – Irritable

E – Energy decreased

T – Tension in muscles, tense and on edge

Y – You avoid situations or stressors that make you anxious

Having these symptoms and signs may not necessarily mean that you have an anxiety disorder. Clinicians will often use screening tools, in addition to their clinical assessment to help rule out a diagnosis. Some excellent resources are available on the internet to assess the likelihood of an anxiety disorder. Examples include the ‘Anxiety self-test’ (https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/digital-tools-apps/anxiety-self-test/) and the ‘Anxiety checklist’ (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety/anxiety-checklist). These tools can provide a guide as to whether you may have an anxiety disorder but are no substitute for clinical diagnosis by an experienced health practitioner.

You may be having no issues with anxiety in your life, but recognising dysfunctional anxiety in a friend or loved one can be life-changing. People can be living their lives, struggling with debilitating anxiety symptoms and either not aware, or too scared to seek help. We are fortunate that mental health is relatively well resourced in this country with both government and non-government organisations providing care and support. For younger persons (12-25 years) ‘headspace’ (https://headspace.org.au/young-people/mental-health/anxiety/) can be a great resource. For older persons, ‘Black Dog Institute’ (https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/) and ‘Beyond Blue’ (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/) can provide information to help people with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety can sometimes be the signal of an underlying medical condition. There are many conditions associated with anxiety symptoms including thyroid disorders, low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia), side effects from drugs/toxins, alcohol withdrawal, and so on. If you suspect that you may be having an anxiety disorder, please ensure you seek advice from a medical practitioner, who can perform a comprehensive assessment to exclude potential organic causes.

Remember, feeling anxious or stressed is normal. An anxiety disorder is when it interferes with your activities of daily living and manifests with biological, psychological or social symptoms. Recognising anxiety disorder can be the first step to mental wellbeing.

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About the author

Dr Roy is a medical practitioner with over 25 years’ experience working in tertiary and primary care. He previously trained and worked in Victoria but currently resides in tropical north Queensland, teaching the next generation of doctors.  He is passionate about education, for health care profes ... more