Everyone gets nervous, but regularly being overwhelmed by fear could mean that you have an anxiety disorder. Here are some tips to help you cope…

Are you feeling unexplainably anxious? You are not alone.

About one in five South Africans has an anxiety disorder, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). Globally, an estimated 264 million people are living with anxiety disorders in the world.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Characterised by overwhelming worry and fear, anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic disorder – Characterised by sudden attacks of panic and fear, women are twice as likely to suffer from this disorder. Attacks are usually triggered by fear-producing events or thoughts, such as taking a lift or driving. Physical symptoms include rapid heartbeat, strange chest sensations, and shortness of breath, dizziness, tingling, and anxiousness. Panic disorders typically start in young adulthood, but children and older people are not immune.
  • Social anxiety disorder – Sufferers may experience self-consciousness, blushing, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking and sweating when having to interact with others, even a small number of people.
  • Phobias – An irrational fear of a situation or thing, like crowds, flying, or animals that are overwhelming, disruptive and out of proportion to the actual risk involved.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – Symptoms include trouble falling or staying asleep, muscle tension (clenching the jaw, balling your fists and tightening of muscles throughout the body), chronic indigestion and self-doubt.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also closely related to anxiety disorders.

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People with OCD have anxiety about making mistakes and develop compulsive behaviour that may be cognitive (like repeating a mantra) or physical (like obsessively hand washing or straightening objects).

PTSD is a debilitating condition that follows a traumatic event in which sufferers may experience flashbacks, nightmares, numbing of emotions, depression and feeling angry, irritability or feeling distracted and being easily startled.

Related: Stress: How to use your body to calm your mind

The struggle to function

“These issues can have a serious effect on all areas of a person’s life, resulting in them becoming unable to function in their day-to-day lives,” says Felicity Pienaar, an occupational therapist at Akeso Clinic in Nelspruit.

“In serious cases, anxiety left untreated can derail careers, destroy relationships and may even drive a person to suicide.”

What causes anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are caused by a number of different factors. No single situation or condition will cause it. Physical and mental triggers combine to create a certain anxiety disorder.

“Experts believe that anxiety can sometimes be a learned behaviour that can be unlearned with the correct help,” says Pienaar. “Heredity plays a role, as does altered brain chemistry – indicated by the fact that symptoms respond to medication. The condition may also be exacerbated by personality and certain life experiences.”

7 Tips for dealing with anxiety disorders

“It is important to recognise that avoidance doesn’t work,” Pienaar says, “Trying to avoid certain situations, thoughts or feelings often results in experiencing more of the thing you are trying to avoid, as the patient ends up constantly focusing on that one thing..”

Instead, she advises the following:

  1. Recognise the cost of avoidance – Take note of the time and mental energy spent trying to avoid something. Ask yourself how it has affected your relationships and your view of yourself.
  2. Learning to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about situations – The more you are willing to expose yourself to thoughts and feelings that make you anxious, the more quickly they will pass naturally. Thoughts and feelings are temporary, and you need to learn to “ride them out”. Consciously relaxing your muscles and doing breathing exercise can help you to think more clearly.
  3. Use distraction techniques – Try cognitive distraction (such as counting backwards in 3s or 7s, singing your favourite song or reciting your favourite poem), and mindfulness or progressive muscle relaxation.
  4. Exercise – Aerobic exercise, in particular, releases endorphins (chemicals in the brain) that help you to feel more healthy and vital. They act as natural painkillers and improve our ability to sleep, which is very important to reduce stress.
  5. Avoid stimulants – Substances such as caffeine and nicotine make one feel jittery and tense, and can worsen existing anxiety. We believe that it will calm our nerves, but the physical effect on our body is the opposite.
  6. Eat a balanced diet – Avoiding processed and high-sugar food can help manage your anxiety, as these foods cause fluctuations in blood sugar, which affects mood. This is followed by a “crash”, which can cause shaking and tension. These worsen anxiety.
  7. Get enough sleep – It allows your body to regenerate and recharges your mind. After a good night’s sleep, coping with our problems becomes more manageable.

Related: Women who get up early are happier

Seek help

In most cases of anxiety disorder, a combination of medication, prescribed by a psychiatrist, and ‘talk’ therapy with a psychologist, is the most successful treatment, according to Pienaar.

“Medication alone often does not get the job done,” she says. “A good response to medication often makes you more amenable to look for the causes of your distress, and to try to change your behaviour. Anxiety disorders can persist for an extended period of time, and the severity may fluctuate, but regular treatment can help a person manage this.”

Joining a support group may also help.

Contact www.akeso.co.za or SADAG to find a group in your area on 011 262 6396, or visit www.sadag.org

Sources: World Health Organisation, www.sadag.org,www.webmd.comwww.adaa.org and www.psychologytoday.com

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.