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Understanding Anxiety: This Is What It Actually Feels Like

Plus things you can do when symptoms strike.

11/01/2017 11:15 AM AEDT | Updated 17/01/2017 5:07 PM AEDT

First things first -- if you have anxiety, or have felt anxious from time to time, you are certainly not alone.

In each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness. Of those, anxiety issues are the most common, with around 14 percent of Aussies affected by an anxiety disorder in any 12-month period.

It is somewhat comforting to know that anxiety is common, and there are things you can do when it happens to you.

"Anxiety is a common human emotion when we are confronted by something we find challenging or threatening to our safety or wellbeing," Dr Stephen Carbone, Policy, Research and Evaluation Leader at beyondblue told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Such situations, whether it is going for a job interview, or stepping out of our comfort zone travelling to a new destination, or attending a social event, may arouse feelings of fear. Physical symptoms of this can include shallow breathing, quickened pulse rate, sweats and shakes, tummy upsets, and muscle tightening.

Mike Wilson Unsplash
Busy or social situations can often bring on feelings of anxiety.

"In addition, thinking changes are characterised by a tendency to overestimate what could go wrong and underestimate your ability to handle it."

When anxiety is intense enough, it can change people's behaviours, making them avoid situations they find uncomfortable, or only do something if they have or escape plan or some other safety net in place.

"This can restrict people's enjoyment and participation in everyday tasks and events, such as avoiding family get togethers or attending parties, which can then contribute to feelings of loneliness and depression," Carbone said.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to minimise the effects of anxiety.

"Because anxiety involves a mix of thoughts, feeling, physical sensations and behaviours, people can learn strategies that interrupt anxiety at any of these levels," Carbone said.

"Being anxious switches on our 'fight or flight' response, where we get a surge of adrenaline and other hormones responsible for feelings of panic."

One effective way to switch this normal danger response off, is to deliberately slow down your breathing. Carbone suggests walking away somewhere private, closing your eyes, and concentrating on slowing your breathing by counting slowly to three as you inhale and to three as you exhale.

Alejandro Alvarez Unsplash
Slow, deep breathing can help manage symptoms.

"Or perhaps go for a quick walk or try progressive muscle relaxation techniques, where you slowly tense and then relax each of your muscle groups starting from your toes up to your head," Carbone said.

Another important way to beat anxiety is by learning how to tune into and challenge the negative self-talk that is often the driving force.

"While this takes a bit of practise to learn and get comfortable with, it can be really effective in switching off anxiety. Ultimately, while it can be tough, the key is not to bail out at the peak of any anxiety, but rather stick with it until the anxiety subsides -- even a little -- as this will help train your mind to realise that the white knuckle moment will eventually pass and that you can get through it."

It's natural to not want to get yourself in situations where you might feel anxious, but that can result in avoiding people and social gatherings, which isn't the long-term answer.

"One of the ways to beat anxiety is to overcome the natural tendency to avoid unpleasant situations. For example, people with social anxiety disorder typically feel tense in social situations and worry they will say or do something embarrassing and everyone will notice and so they often avoid going to parties or other social functions," Carbone said.

Jens Johnsson Unsplash
Avoiding social situations is not a long term solution.

"One way to overcome this condition, is to establish a list of social situations you find uncomfortable and rank them from the least to the most anxiety provoking. It's then a question of learning some of the relaxation skills used to quell anxiety and then slowly taking on the situations that you find difficult."

This involves tackling each situation in increasing order of difficulty, doing each one a few times until you feel comfortable, before moving on to the next one.

"It's often helpful to run through your relaxation routine before you take on each event to mentally prepare yourself. Over time you will find yourself being able to get involved in more activities, more comfortably.

"There are several anxiety management programs on the internet that you can use to learn the necessary anxiety management skills, or alternatively you can consult a psychologist or other mental health professional to learn how to manage anxiety effectively," Carbone said.

Carbone said it's important to remember that everyone gets anxious at some point, particularly when they are doing something new, or challenging, or out of their comfort zone.

"Most of the time this anxiety is moderate, short-term, connected with the particular situation and does not interfere with everyday tasks. However, if you notice that you are regularly feeling worried and tense and your anxiety feelings are intense, prolonged, happening without any particular trigger, or disrupting your day to day life it may be worthwhile doing an online checklist like the beyondblue anxiety checklist or consulting your GP or a mental health professional for an assessment," Carbone said.

These health professionals can provide a personalised assessment and treatment plan to help you manage any anxiety condition.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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