Even if you don't suffer from extreme anxiety, you might've experienced a day-to-day feeling of unease. Or perhaps you've experienced hormone-related anxiety around the time of your period?
We get the lowdown on anxiety from Chloe Brotheridge, a clinical hypnotherapist and author of The Anxiety Solution.
What is anxiety?
"Anxiety is basically an umbrella term to describe uncomfortable, nervous thoughts and feelings, often about things in the future. It typically also has physical symptoms, even though it’s primarily thought of as a mental health issue. As well as a sense of dread or irritableness and trouble with concentrating, it can make you feel dizzy, sick and exhausted. It can give you palpitations, tense muscles, stomach problems and trouble sleeping. If you’ve had symptoms such as these for at least six months then your doctor might well diagnose anxiety.
The way that anxiety most typically expresses itself is in worrying. We all worry, of course we do, but if you are thinking about actual or potential problems in a way that regularly creates anxiety, then worry has got out of hand. Worrying is a problem if it feels uncontrollable and stops you from focusing and enjoying life. Maybe you find yourself persistently coming back to the same train of thought again and again. Worry can also be called rumination, over-analysing or overthinking. It’s one of the primary symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)."
Is anxiety getting more common?
"It’s becoming the norm for us to feel anxious. We’re chronically worried: about cash, our relationship or lack thereof, the housing market, not being good enough, the people we love, whether we’ll have babies, what to eat, what not to eat, wars, natural disasters, politics and the economy, the shape and proportions of our bodies and the lines on our faces."
What causes anxiety?
"Anxiety is a natural and normal phenomenon. When human beings were evolving we needed the fight-or-flight response to help us escape from dangers or fight for our lives. These short bursts of adrenaline (and the anxiety and panic they bring with them) kept the species alive. These days, in our society, we live in much safer times. There are no wild bears, and no alien tribes attacking ours. The problem is, the amygdala the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response and is responsible for our emotions – didn’t get the memo. It misinterprets everyday challenges and irritations – from giving a presentation or flying in an aeroplane to receiving a large bill in the post – as life-or-death situations. Then it fires up our survival response, pouring adrenaline into our blood- stream and making sure we’re on high alert.
The feeling of nervousness or butterflies in your stomach is a result of your brain directing blood flow away from your digestive system and towards your limbs so that you are better able to run away or fight, as required. Excessive worrying is another survival mechanism gone wrong. Worry is designed to help us be on high alert for the worst-case scenario but when it becomes a more or less permanent state of mind, it can profoundly damage our mental health."
Does anxiety affect women more than men?
"According to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2014 report ‘Living with Anxiety’, 22 percent of women in the UK feel anxious ‘most of the time'. A 2016 review by researchers at Cambridge University found that women are twice as likely to experience the condition than men, with those under thirty-five most affected.
There’s an irony here because we women spend a lot of time trying to hold it all together and, often, we do a very good job of it. At least from the outside. The problem is that even if we’re managing pretty well we often fear that we’re about to fail. Or we’re convinced we’re not doing well enough."
Why does anxiety affect women more than men?
"Women’s brains (in particular the amygdala, which governs emotion and responds to stress) are more likely than men’s to fire up at a stressful event. But there are also a host of social, cultural and political factors that make women particularly prone to anxiety. There is pressure on women, both from ourselves and society, to ‘have it all’ – the fantastic career, a great body, a rewarding relationship – and then balance babies, boardrooms, buying property and often taking on the brunt of caring for parents as we, and they, get older.
Not to mention the fact that women are paid less than men in 90 percent of all sectors, according to the UK government’s 2015 report. Then there’s the fact that our hormones fluctuate monthly, which can cause more stress and anxiety."
How can you tell whether you have anxiety?
"When I talk to people about their anxiety they often tell me that they don’t want to make a fuss, or that they feel bad because they know there are so many others with worse problems. They believe they ought to be able to pull themselves together. All this puts extra strain on them and makes them feel more anxious. The first thing to say is that, if you are suffering, then there is a problem and you deserve to get help. If worry or panic affect your daily life or are causing you distress, please don’t suffer in silence."
How can you treat anxiety?
If you suspect you may have anxiety it’s essential to have it diagnosed by your GP. They will be able to help you decide if therapy or medication is a good option, and also distinguish anxiety from other issues such as depression.
There are many natural remedies for anxiety, which include using essential oils and aromatherapy throughout the day, homeopathy and activities such as yoga. Natural remedies for insomnia can help you to sleep better, if anxiety is keeping you awake at night and there are also meditation and mindfulness techniques, which can help you to cope.
The Anxiety Solution by Chloe Brotheridge is published by Penguin, £12.99