What is Anxiety?

Date: 20-05-2022

By Dr Michelle Woolhouse

Anxiety is an emotional state that is characterised by over-whelming fear or worry. It is extremely common and affects ¼ teenage girls and there is a lifetime prevalence of 25% of Australians (Beyondblue). It is a more common diagnosis in women than in men. Whilst some people cope well with life stresses, some people have a propensity to respond with anxiety and worry. Learn about its symptoms, what can make things easier and treatment options.

Everybody will experience what anxiety feels like from time to time, but it is when this feeling persists, dominates our days or impacts our functioning is when it becomes worthy of a ‘diagnosis’. But even though many people have these tendencies there are many ways we can support our minds, bodies and brains, and reduce the negative effects of this human condition. Understanding anxiety, how it works, what influences it, how you can learn to reduce it yourself, the role of lifestyle choices, your mental approach and skills can help you manage this human emotion and even make it a helpful opportunity for growth in your life.

Anxiety defined

The American Psychological association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry.”

A Japanese psychiatrist by the name of Dr Shoma Morita offer an alternative viewpoint, he defines anxiety as “a reflection of our desires for good lives”.

Exploring anxiety in a broader framework can allow for a deeper appreciation of our inner emotions and can set the stage for a new approach to mental well-being.

Anxiety is a natural human emotion that is inherent in our need and drive for love and connection. It is mainly driven by a part of the brain called the Limbic System. This is where we somewhat automate our emotional responses to support our survival, kind of like setting off an alarm. When anxiety becomes a dominant force in our emotionality this can lead to a larger alarm centre in the brain, going off when it is neither required or setting off a large alarm bell, when only a small warning sign may have sufficed.

Setting up this overactivity can occur throughout life and may be triggered by a mental stress, an internal stressor or a combination of multiple different reasons. Hormonal fluctuations, diet, sleep, exercise and environmental events may all contribute.

What are the symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety symptoms vary from person to person as they are determined by different aspects of our personalities, culture, education, lifestyle and social skills.

The following are the five most common Anxiety symptoms:

  • Fluctuating emotions such as fear, worry, anger and sadness
  • Feeling of tension through the body
  • Fatigue and poor concentration
  • Poor sleep
  • Inability to make decisions

Other common symptoms include palpitations, chest tightness, breath hunger, dry mouth, changes in bowel habit, irritability, hypochondriasis and worsening of other diagnoses, such as asthma, tension headaches, pain and migraines for example.

What happens during Anxiety?

Anxiety has whole body impacts, from physical impacts to mental, emotional and social impacts. For example suffering anxiety can lead to long term issues with sleep, impacting a whole range of different issues ranging from immunity, hormone regulation and metabolic changes. It can impact our ability to lay down memories, to learn effectively and to socialise. Anxiety impacts our muscle tension and gut function, leading to nutritional issues and symptoms such as bloating, fluctuating bowel movements and even tummy pain. The symptoms you may experience may be in line with your genetic vulnerabilities.

Even though there is nothing any of us can do to make sure we never experience anxiety again, there are a lot of things that can make it more functional, more regulated and more easeful. You can even learn from your anxiety to grow and evolve as a person.

Is there a treatment for Anxiety?

There is no cure for Anxiety as such but you can definitely learn to manage it and work with it to support yourself to grow. The best way is to take a whole person approach. Focusing on lifestyle medicine, whole person support, herbal and nutritional interventions and the consideration of counselling, inter-personal skills, spiritual practices and personal development can all help.  Altering life choices such as maximising the nutrition in your diet, regular exercise, stress reduction and sleep support are also vital in making sure the body returns to a sense of safety and trust.

Talk to your doctor about possible treatment options that are suitable for you.

Michelle Woolhouse is an Integrative GP who runs her Women’s Health Clinic at NIIM Clinic on Thursdays. She is due to publish her book “The Wonder Within – A heart-led playbook for the anxious, stressed and burnt-out” in September this year. To make an appointment with Dr Woolhouse, please call the NIIM Clinic on (03) 9804 0646 or visit www.niim.com.au to find out more

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