Video by Tom Compagnoni
For some it starts with chest pains and a shortage of breath. For others, worried thoughts and images repeatedly flood the brain.
The symptoms of anxiety are profound and diverse but they each have a common theme -- the ability to interfere and stop a person from living a normal life.
While experts agree that anxiety, although unpleasant, is a normal, inevitable and important part of being human -- an anxiety disorder is so much more than that.
“Anxiety conditions are persistent and enduring,” Dr Stephen Carbone, beyondblue’s Policy, Research and Evaluation Leader told The Huffington Post Australia.
“The mental symptoms include worrying; ruminating and obsessing and the physical symptoms include tension, restlessness, agitation, rapid heart rate and panic attacks,” Carbone said.
With the symptoms come certain behaviours based on avoidance; these have no cause, are uncontrollable and like the condition itself are not one-size-fits all.
“It is intense and severe and tends to impact on your day-to-day functioning. Anxiety stops you from doing what you want to do and being who you want to be,” Carbone said.
According to the 2007 Australian Bureau of Statistics National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 14 percent of Australians will experience one form of anxiety disorder in any 12-month period. Across their lifetime, one in four Australians will experience one of those conditions.
However, these statistics do not take into account the large number of people who struggle with anxiety but do not meet diagnostic criteria, or do not seek help.
For Lucy Neville, a social anxiety diagnosis at age 12 meant that for five years during her teens she was overcome with self-doubt.
“I was just beginning high school when I started to become very uncomfortable in myself,” Neville told HuffPost Australia.
Social anxiety disorder (or social phobia as it is sometimes referred to) is said to be the most common anxiety condition in young Australians.
There would be days when Neville would change what she was wearing up to 15 times before heading down to her local shops.
“In such a time of change where you are already feeling so vulnerable, my anxiety caused me to hyper-analyse every situation and I’d expect the worst to happen at all times,” Neville said.
There is comorbidity between anxiety and depression with a recent study finding 90 percent of patients with anxiety have depression. Anxiety disorders are almost always the primary condition, with onset usually occurring in childhood or adolescence.
Children as young as four can present with an anxiety disorder but it often goes unrecognised both by the person experiencing it and those around them.
“There is a stigma surrounding most mental health conditions, but with anxiety people think you are weak, as if they are able to snap out of it. But it’s a real health, medical and psychological condition,” Carbone said.
For Chris Paine, the constant worry and fear of getting in trouble at school to the point where he would be physically sick over it was a regular day for him as a child.
“I was petrified of getting in trouble or losing something. I remember being as young as 10 and constantly checking where my watch was, even though I knew it was there,” Paine told HuffPost Australia.
“I knew it was a bit odd, but I didn’t think much of it,” Paine said.
Soon, the obsessive thoughts grew darker and there would be nights where he would cry himself to sleep followed by days where he would lock himself in his room out of fear from his thoughts.
It wasn’t until he had a panic attack at 23 that he sought professional help, resulting in an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis.
“It was the best and worst day of my life when I discovered I had OCD,” Paine said.
“I’d been diagnosed with depression previously and for eight years I’d suffered with these thoughts I couldn’t control, which completely eroded my sense of self,” Paine said.
Paine compares the thought process of somebody with an anxiety disorder to being as if “every single fleeting thought you may have as a human being that raises the smallest bit of fear or doubt is red flagged in your brain -- while all of the logical thoughts get thrown in the trash”.
“I’ll never forget the psychologist saying ‘you are incredibly normal, you are just suffering from an illness’,” Paine said.
A PwC report, commissioned by beyondblue, found the cost of mental illness to Australian businesses was $10.9 billion a year.
Treatment options for anxiety disorders include psychological therapies, medication or a mixture of both. However, many experts agree that promising to “cure” anxiety only adds to its bad wrap.
“Therapy aims to teach people more helpful ways of dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings. The goal is for anxiety to be less of a problem or interference for clients when it shows up, as inevitably it will show up,” Dr Janine Clarke, psychologist at The Sydney ACT Centre and Mend Psychology told HuffPost Australia.
Anxiety can be experienced in an episode that might run for several weeks, months or years, and then it may never return. This was certainly the case for Lucy who hasn’t experienced anxiety since turning 18.
For some an anxiety condition might be an ongoing persistent problem while others may re-experience episodic periods of their anxiety throughout their lifetime.
Sam Princi describes a period of his life when his OCD was detrimental.
“Within a really short space of time I had to quit my web design job. It felt as if I had nothing left except my family -- and I didn’t even speak to them about it,” Princi said.
“My OCD was so intense I couldn’t focus and it was a struggle to eat, sleep or even talk to a friend on the phone.”
Princi said even after his OCD diagnosis and various therapies he still saw his disorder as a “demon” inside of him.
“There are a number of scientifically tested or ‘evidence-based’ psychological therapies for anxiety, but none of these work by completely ‘removing’ or ‘eliminating’ anxiety symptoms altogether,” Clarke said.
“Rather, they teach people to change what they do when anxious thoughts and feelings show up," Clarke said.
"Clients learn how not to get tangled up with unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Ironically, it's very often the struggle 'not' to have anxious thoughts and feelings that keeps anxiety going and increases people's suffering," Clarke said.
For example, traditional Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) focuses on changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that contribute to and maintain anxiety. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a modern form of CBT, teaches people different ways of relating to unhelpful thoughts and feelings so that they have less influence and impact on people's lives.
“For so long I thought in order to solve my OCD I had to stop the dark thoughts but I quickly realised once you stop one obsessive thought there was another one there instantly to fill it,” Princi said.
For Paine, understanding his anxiety disorder and the way in which his brain responds when anxiety surfaces is as important as the treatment itself.
“I’ve learnt to not take my thoughts so seriously. And the best thing -- by far -- that I did was stop blaming myself for my illness,” Paine said.