You are sitting at your table and you feel a gradual sense of mental paralysis coming over you. Your ability to think straight appears to be suspended. You start panicking a bit and you feel heart palpitations, slight shortness of breath, your mouth feels dry and your hands are getting sweaty. The thing you were just busy with suddenly feels like an impossible task and you cannot build the steps in your mind to go from A to B, even though it’s something simple that you’ve done countless times before. You look around you to check whether anyone has noticed that you are losing it.
Somehow, in this moment, you still manage to be concerned about what others are thinking of you. You sit for what feels like hours, incapable of getting back to ‘normal’, but when you eventually regain a hold of yourself you see that only 5 minutes have passed. This scenario describes some of what one may experience when you are going through an anxiety episode.
Anxiety, like stress, is a normal feature of life. Anxiety is a natural response when we face dangerous or potentially harmful situations or stimuli. It is part of the fear response that helps us to survive experiences that could cause us harm. In evolutionary terms, it is part of the fight or flight instinct that triggers responses – solutions to the problems we are facing – to ensure our survival. As discussed in the post about stress and the effects on the brain a healthy, occasional dose of a survival response is normal, but modern life does seem to cause us to live under amplified stressful conditions. This can cause unhealthy levels of anxiety that eventually interrupt our usual daily patterns, and may even become chronic disorders. However, this is not to say that all elevated levels and experiences of anxiety will lead to a lifelong condition. Untreated, frequently high experiences of anxiety can have permanent mental health impacts but it can also be something temporary that one experiences due to trauma or a period of high stress. It is important to learn to care for and manage your mental wellness so that you can recognise when issues like anxiety are posing a risk to your health.
When you are facing challenges such as a very high work or study load or you have a lot of responsibilities and deadlines looming at university or you have an overwhelming number of family and financial challenges you can experience very high levels of anxiety. If these conditions are ongoing, and you never have a chance to relax or get away from the situations that are causing you stress, it may lead to anxiety episodes which cause an involuntary response, forcing you to stop what you are busy with. If this happens, it is important to take a break from what is causing this elevated stress response. Doing things like getting up, taking a short walk, doing breathing and stretching exercises to regulate your breathing and talking to someone who can help calm you down are helpful. Longer term steps are also extremely important. You need to evaluate what the anxiety triggers are and evaluate how to organise your responsibilities so that they are manageable for you. This may be a very long-term plan if your anxieties are related to financial and family responsibilities or your living situation. If your anxiety triggers are related to stress at school, university or work finding healthy solutions may be more under your control. Taking time to get away from your stressful environment and doing things that bring you enjoyment and positive relief can help to balance the build-up of anxiety. Activity-based hobbies such as sport, running, swimming or dancing have great physical benefits. They release hormones that relax you and impact your mood, they help keep you strong and fit in order to be physically resilient and doing physically challenging activities helps to take your mind off tasks that are causing you anxiety.
It is important to note that in our mental health and wellness series we have been focusing on situational, temporary issues that impact your wellbeing. Chronic disorders require medical diagnosis and intervention.