Meveryone is familiar with the dry mouth, intrusive thoughts, and palpitations of the heart and stomach that are hallmarks of anxiety. Often a temporary and completely natural reaction to threat, these responses can be useful in certain situations, sharpening the mind and getting blood where it’s needed faster.
But while the stress usually subsides once a problem has passed, the anxiety lingers and is often out of proportion to the challenge at hand. If it continues for months and begins to interfere with daily activities, an anxiety disorder may be diagnosed.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemicaround five in 100 people in England experienced regular or uncontrollable worry about several things in their lives – a condition known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
The introduction of the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020 saw the prevalence of generalized anxiety among the general population jump to 31% according to a recent study, due to social isolation, uncertainty about the future and the perceived threat of illness or death felt by many people. This is a challenge that “cannot be overcome overnight”, according to the study’s lead author, Dr Gemma Taylor from the University of Bath. A separate studyconducted in the summer of 2021, found that a fifth of participants continued to suffer from what researchers called the “Covid-19 anxiety syndrome” – a heightened state of worry, excessive symptom checking and a avoidance of public spaces due to fears of contamination.
A diagnosis of anxiety is usually made by a GP, based on a patient’s symptoms and how long they have had them. In the case of GAD, the diagnostic criteria include at least six months of excessive worry about everyday problems that is disproportionate to any inherent risk and that causes distress or impairment in daily living. Symptoms may include restlessness or nervousness, easy fatigue, lack of concentration, irritability, muscle tension or trouble sleeping – and tend to be present most of the time. However, anxiety is, in fact, a general umbrella term that can describe a number of different anxiety disorders, including some less common conditions, such as phobias and panic disorders.
A group of anxiety disorders is characterized by repetitive thoughts or compulsions, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (TOC) is probably the best known. About 1 in 50 people have OCD at some point in their lives, and unlike GAD, which is about twice as common in women as men, OCD affects men and women equally. Affected individuals repeatedly experience unwanted thoughts, images, urges, worries, or doubts (obsessions) that can make them very anxious or uncomfortable. They also tend to engage in repetitive activities (compulsions) to reduce their anxiety, such as repeatedly checking for medical symptoms on the Internet or whether a door is locked.
Related to OCD are disorders where people experience illness-related obsessions and compulsions; or body dysmorphic disorder, with obsessions and compulsions related to their physical appearance.
Phobias involving fear or anxiety of a person triggered by a particular situation or object, for example dogs, the plane, clowns or injections. It is estimated that 10 million people in the UK have phobias. Simple phobias, such as fear of heights or spiders, typically begin in childhood, while complex phobias tend to appear later in life. For example, social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder) often begins during puberty and is associated with intense fear or worry in social situations, including before or after a social event occurs. be produced.
Agoraphobia, on the other hand, tends to first strike between the late teens and early twenties, although complex phobias can persist for many years. Agoraphobia is more than just a fear of open spaces; those affected may feel anxious about being in places or situations that may be difficult to get out of, or where they may not be able to get help if they have an attack of panic – a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions, and sometimes for no apparent reason.
If someone regularly has panic attacks seemingly out of the blue, without any obvious triggers, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder. It often coexists with agoraphobia, and in some cases the fear of having a panic attack can itself trigger an attack. In the UK, the prevalence of panic disorder with or without agoraphobia is estimated at 1.7%.
There are many other types of anxiety disorders, but one last thing to note is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which stands out because it strikes after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or serious injury. About 50% of people will experience trauma at some point in their lives, but only a fifth of them will develop PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within three months of the traumatic event, but in some cases they begin years later and may include flashbacks or nightmares that may feel like you are reliving the fear and anxiety you you felt at the time. Like other anxiety disorders, PTSD can severely impair a person’s ability to function in social or family life, sometimes leading to relationship problems or job instability.
The good news is that effective treatments exist for all of these anxiety disorders, so it’s important to seek help.
Where to find help
If you think your anxiety, or that of a friend or family member, is becoming a problem, seek help by contacting a GP, who may be able to provide treatment and/or referral to a therapist through the NHS. Private therapy is another option, although it can be expensive.
Various charities and community organizations hold peer support groups, where individuals share their own experiences of anxiety and coping strategies in a supportive environment, including Mind, Anxiety UK and rethinking mental illness.
Listen 0300 123 3393
Anxiety United Kingdom 03444 775 774
Do not panic 0300 772 9844
United Kingdom 07984 967708
the UK Samaritans 116 123.
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