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My Anxious Mind: When Worry Takes Over Your Life

Anxiety is a normal part of human experience, however at times it can become overwhelming. When the feeling of anxiety is excessive it can affect your work, relationships and ability to rest and relax. This is the time when you should learn about tools and strategies to manage it.    

Anxiety might creep in slowly and increase gradually. You might start noticing that it is harder to relax and enjoy activities you used to like. Your mood becomes lower and you might be feeling sad and withdrawn. We are all experiencing occasional feelings of nervousness. It is normal to feel anxious before an interview or a date, however when you notice that it is difficult to relax or fall asleep it might be a first sign that anxiety becomes excessive.

Anxiety might also appear suddenly in response to a trigger such as change in life circumstances. For instance, if you start experiencing problems in a relationship that you value you will most likely start becoming anxious. You will start experiencing thoughts of uncertainty of what might happen with your relationship. You might even think about the worst case scenarios of ‘what if we break up?’ that go along physiological symptoms of anxiety such as knotted stomach, being restless and not being able to concentrate.

What is anxiety? 

We all have a self-protective mechanism that helps us to survive, which is called the fight flight freeze response (FFF). FFF allows you to fight an enemy, run from a danger or freeze to hide from a predator. Our brain sometimes misinterprets save situations as dangerous and sets off false alarms. When amygdala (our brain watchdog) sets an alarm our body enters a survival mode quicker than our rational brain can react. Our breathing becomes quicker and shallower causing hyper-ventilation. 

Our heart starts beating very fast. Those changes can cause chest pain, which you might interpret as signs of heart attack. As a way of getting ready for action the blood is diverted towards major muscle groups and away from the parts of the body that are not important in danger. Blood flows away from our digestive system and that might cause feelings of nausea. You might feel a need to urinate. The mouth goes dry and nausea might occur. Blood rashes from extremities leaving you with cold, sweaty hands because the body tries to avoid overheating. Trembling might occur because of tension in muscles. 

Anxiety is a part of the FFF system. When you start worrying about your exam your body starts to react through FFF activation. You feel on edge and cannot concentrate. You might also lose your appetite. The level of anxiety might not be as intense as when you are being chased by an animal but it lasts longer. Persistent anxiety, often referred to as stress, can have negative effects on the body and mind. Everyday worry is relatively short-lived and leads to positive problem solving. Excessive worry is more frequent, very difficult to control or dismiss. When you are overly anxious your mind has a lot of catastrophic and anxious thoughts. You might try your best to distract yourself from those thoughts but you quickly notice that it isn’t really working. 

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

When your worry and anxiety is excessive and occurring for more days than not for at least 6 months you are likely to meet criteria for a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). In order to be diagnosed you also need to find it difficult to control the worry. At least three physiological symptoms are required: restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge, excessive fatigue, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension or sleep disturbance. Only a licenses psychiatrist can diagnose a mental health condition.

If you are diagnosed with GAD you might be worrying about everyday situations, e.g. not being able to do work on time, running late for the meeting. You might be creating scenarios in your mind of what is going to happen, e.g. ‘People will judge me’ ‘I will never be able to do it right’ etc. You might have a low belief in your abilities.

Anxiety can affect you in a variety of ways. Worrying can lead to procrastination, inability to focus on tasks or even avoidance of doing it entirely. You might be restless and fidgety and keep moving more than usual. It is harder to fall asleep and you might be waking up more. Appetite decreases or you might start eating food as an emotional comfort. With time, constant anxiety might lead to depressive symptoms.

How do we measure anxiety?

As humans we constantly experience an ever-changing stream of feelings: sadness, anger, anxiety. Subjective experiences can range from something as simple as seeing a blue calming sea to something as major as losing a job. An experience may provoke many emotions and the intensity of the emotions vary depending on the trigger and a person’s ability to cope with it. 

There are differences in how people experience emotions. For instance, we all experience anxiety when our relationship is at stake, however some people experience it much more intensely than others. We also vary in a way how we can cope with emotions, which is determined by our upbringing and current situation. If you have good support from family and friends you can probably cope better.   

A useful way of measuring anxiety is using your own subjective scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is a calm, relaxed state and 10 is the most intense anxiety level you have ever experienced. Spend a few minutes every evening to reflect on your level of anxiety and note it down. You can use Pocket Diary: Anxiety First Aid Kit to help you do that. 

The first chapter of Pocket Therapist: Anxiety First Aid Kit has an explanation of anxiety and its physiological symptoms. It is based on cognitive-behavioural techniques that are helpful to understand and manage your anxiety better. The first task is to note down situations that triggered anxiety, its physiological symptoms and what was going on in your mind at the time. Understanding anxiety is the first step to asking for help. You can also share your notes with your therapist / doctor to help them to understand what is going on for you to better inform the diagnosis or therapy. 

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