Understanding Anxiety: Symptoms, Triggers, and Coping Strategies

April 20, 2024

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is in itself just an emotion that indicates danger through feelings of tension, worry and physical reactions like increased blood pressure and sweaty palms. This feeling differs from fear, because it is long-lasting, future-oriented, and disproportionately intense for a non-dangerous situation. Fear, on the other hand, is an appropriate response to a threat and is therefore present-oriented and rapid.

Therefore, an anxiety disorder means experiencing anxiety to a disproportionate extent in situations where there is no real danger. This type of disorder is one of the most common mental health disorders and is treatable. 

What are anxiety symptoms?

Anxiety manifests itself both mentally and physically. Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include excessive worrying, difficulty making a decision or thinking beyond the worries, sweating, trembling and shaking. These symptoms often persist over a period of several months. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself, it may be wise to seek counseling in order to better understand yourself and your body.

Further symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Sense of impending doom, danger, or panic
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling irritable, tense, or restless
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Heart palpitations like a fast heartbeat
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Suffering from digestive or abdominal problems
  • Rapid breathing
  • Panic attacks

These symptoms and the cause for anxiety often begin during childhood. Naturally, everyone can get an anxiety disorder. But people who experienced trauma like abuse or a severe loss have an increased risk of suffering from anxiety and other mental health disorders. It is important to recognize it, as anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression.

The effects of having an anxiety disorder often include poor performance at school or work, since the mind is preoccupied with worry and concentration is difficult. People with an anxiety disorder also tend to avoid stressful or panic-inducing situations like social gatherings or events where their performance will be tested. They also suffer from headaches and chronic pain, sometimes have a tendency for substance abuse and a lower quality of life. Some people even exhibit suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In this case, it is crucial to seek help immediately.

What triggers anxiety?

Triggers for anxiety disorders are wide and varied. Most have to do with a stressful environment caused by financial struggles, a hectic job, relationship issues or family dynamics. Additionally, specific situations like social gatherings or conflicts can make you feel anxious, alongside factors like substance abuse, withdrawal, or even fluctuations in blood sugar levels from skipping meals.

However, anxiety is not solely influenced by external factors. Genetic predispositions can play a significant role, as anxiety disorders can be hereditary. There can also be a medical reason behind it. A symptom of another disease or a side-effect of medication can manifest as anxiety. Especially in cases of heart disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, respiratory disorders, chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety is a likely companion. The same goes for mental health disorders, particularly depression.

Also personality type and the way you think and talk to yourself can worsen anxiety. Repeatedly engaging in negative self-talk can reinforce these beliefs, sustaining a cycle of anxiety. In this case seeking therapy to reframe thought patterns can be very helpful. Similarly, keeping a diary to monitor your self-talk over a period of time is a good strategy. By consciously incorporating positive affirmations and reflections, you can gradually shift towards a more constructive mindset.

The different types of anxiety disorders

There are several different types of anxiety disorders. They differ in their root cause and triggers, but behave similarly.

Agarophobia

When you suffer from agoraphobia, you tend to fear and avoid those places and environments, like crowds, closed spaces or unknown places, where you experience feelings like panic, helplessness or embarrassment.

Anxiety disorder due to a medical condition 

In this case, the anxiety disorder results from another medical condition and not the root cause. As mentioned above under triggers, there are many different diseases and medications that make people feel anxious and panic.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

This disorder is typical for experiencing a disproportionate, intense anxiety over ordinary, routine activities. It is the most popular form of anxiety disorder and often accompanies other mental health disorders. Women are also twice as likely to have it as men. 

Panic disorder 

When suffering from panic disorder, you may experience panic attacks in the form of sudden bursts of intense anxiety and fear that culminate within a short period of time. This can be accompanied by the feeling of impending doom and manifest physically in the form of a fluttering heart, shortness of breath or chest pain. 

Selective mutism 

This usually appears during childhood and means the failure to speak in certain situations even though the person is fully capable to talk in other environments. For example, some children are unable to talk in school, but have no difficulty to talk at home. 

Separation anxiety disorder 

Separation anxiety is also a childhood disorder and describes the fear of being separated from parents or people who take a parental role.

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) 

Social phobia manifests as feeling uncomfortable and anxious in social situations. When engaging with other people, individuals who suffer from social anxiety disorder often feel embarrassed and self-conscious and therefore tend to isolate themselves and avoid social events.

Specific phobias 

There are a lot of types of specific phobias. It can be towards an object, an animal or a situation. People who have a specific phobia often get panic attacks when they are faced with the object of their phobia and always wish to avoid it.

Substance-induced anxiety disorder 

Anxiety can also be a consequence from misuse or withdrawal from drugs, exposure to toxic substances or from certain medications. 

Other specified anxiety disorder and unspecified anxiety disorder 

This describes all types of anxiety that do not fall under the above-mentioned criteria and descriptions.

What are possible coping strategies?

Given that anxiety is often caused by stress, exploring different stress management techniques proves invaluable in finding the best fit for yourself. Depending on the personality, stress triggers and the situation, certain techniques may resonate more than others.

  1. Get moving.

Go for a quick walk outside to get a change of scenery and your mind off your worries. Immersing yourself in nature not only uplifts your spirits but is also good for your immune system, mental and physical health. For an extra boost, go to the gym, play some soccer, or start a dancing session in your living room. If you prefer a more serene option, explore the calming practice of yoga. Not only does it improve flexibility, strength, and balance, but it also aids in relaxation and tranquility.

  1. Regain your focus.

Practice mindfulness, gratitude, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation to shift your focus from diffuse, future worries to a present-oriented mindset and regain a sense of control. Explore guided meditations on YouTube or Spotify for accessible resources. Additionally, learn a calming breathing technique to reduce anxiety anywhere, anytime. Breathe in through your nose and into your belly, hold it for a moment and then breathe out through your mouth.

Another stress management technique is guided imagery. This can be seen as a mini vacation in your mind, transporting the mind away from your body to your “happy place”. Try to engage all your senses here: What do you see? What can you feel, taste or hear? Are you on a beach digging your feet into the sand or are you at home surrounded by puppies? Whatever brings you joy, transport yourself there for a moment and just breathe.

  1. Create a stress-free environment.

Your home can be your sanctuary. If you have control over it, create an environment with the least amount of stressors as possible. Small things go a long way. For example, aromatherapy can help you decrease anxiety, flowers improve the air quality and your mental health, and an overall clean and tidy space contributes to calming your mind.

  1. Indulge in leisure activities.

Having an “outlet” for your anxiety is very important. Many people benefit from engaging in a creative activity like drawing, using a colouring book or playing an instrument. Also gardening or cooking can be great ways to shift attention to the present moment and focus on a single activity.

  1. Have a healthy lifestyle.

A wholesome lifestyle encompasses a well-rounded diet, consistent physical activity, sufficient sleep, and mental engagement. Prioritizing these elements nurtures both body and mind, fostering resilience to effectively navigate life’s challenges.

Another part of a healthy life also means human interaction. Through conversation and hugs, “happy hormones” are released and stress is decreased. Being part of a group can give a sense of belonging and purpose. Sharing your worries and thoughts with others is also a good way to get them out of your head and get help.

  1. Seek help.

Understanding your anxiety disorder and identifying triggers are crucial steps towards finding effective coping strategies. Keeping a journal is helpful to recognize recurring behaviors and thought patterns.

However, particularly in cases of severe or persistent anxiety, seeking professional help and counseling is highly advisable. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the treatability of anxiety disorders. A therapist can provide valuable insights into your disorder, identify triggers, recommend medication if necessary, and offer personalized guidance.

If you are already taking medication for another condition and feel anxious consistently, consulting a doctor is recommendable. Anxiety may be a side effect of medication, and a healthcare professional can offer guidance tailored to your individual needs.

Is it possible to prevent anxiety?

A key factor in preventing anxiety disorders is to have a healthy, balanced life. This includes a balanced diet, regular exercise and movement, a regular sleep schedule and mental stimulation. These promote a good quality of life and build up resilience. On the other hand, drinking coffee, alcohol, taking drugs or suffering from severe sleep deprivation can lead to feeling anxious and should be avoided.

As a parent, it can be important to start with this prevention when the child is still young. Through learning more about anxiety and mental health in general and teaching your child, it gets sensitized to pay attention as well. Also social and emotional learning can benefit children immensely, in all areas of life.

Conclusion

Overall, it is important to realize that feeling anxious is a natural reaction to stressful situations. But when experiencing this to a disproportionate amount for a minor inconvenience, it is necessary to reflect and monitor the own thinking patterns, emotions and sensations. Anxiety disorders are often more recognizable through involuntary and unconscious physical reactions, than conscious thinking patterns.

A healthy, balanced lifestyle consisting of exercise, mental stimulation, social connection and self-awareness greatly contributes to decreasing anxiety and regaining focus on the present. 

If you have an anxiety disorder, it is important to recognize individual triggers and explore different coping strategies, in order to find the best solution for yourself. For this purpose, seeking professional counseling is always the best solution to cover all eventualities. Since this kind of disorder is very common, it is highly treatable and with the right tools and support, it shall not encroach on your enjoyment of life.

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