Mental Health Awareness Week 2023

Monday 15th May – Sunday 21st May 2023

#ToHelpMyAnxiety

The theme for raising awareness this year is Anxiety. Focusing on anxiety for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week will increase people’s awareness and understanding of anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times during their lifetime. Anxiety is a natural response to stressful or dangerous situations.

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health problems we can experience. A recent mental health survey looking at stress, anxiety and hopelessness over personal finances found that a quarter of adults said they felt so anxious that it stopped them from doing the things they want to do. Six in ten adults feel this way, at least some of the time.

Why Do We Feel Anxious?

Anxiety is a normal emotion for us to experience, and has evolved over millions of years with the intention of keeping us safe. However, sometimes it can exceed our coping resources, relate to things that aren’t life-threatening, or impact important areas of our life. This can present as a mental health problem.

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Anxiety is triggered by a perceived threat. That is, our mind has interpreted something in our external or internal world as dangerous to us (in much the same way that lions or tigers would have caused the same fight-or-flight response in our ancestors). The broad range of emotions you experience are normal, valid, and designed to keep you safe (thanks, evolution!).

You can read more about the biology underpinning our fight-or-flight response here.

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Common Causes of Anxiety

Lots of things can lead to feelings of anxiety, including exam pressures, relationships, starting a new job (or losing one) or other significant life events and changes. We can also become anxious when it comes to money matters and not being able to meet our basic needs. If you have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, you will likely be experiencing triggers that are context-specific eg. Social situations.

What Are The Types of Anxiety Disorders?

Whilst a mental health disorder can only be formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist, there are many signs and symptoms that characterise the different anxiety disorders. These help to guide our approach in therapy.

The umbrella term ‘anxiety disorders’ includes:

A few conditions related to anxiety disorders include:

“Having complex PTSD means that I often have flashbacks, as if the events were happening right here and now. These can be triggered by a particular sight, sound, smell or physical sensation and can be very distressing. It means that I avoid things associated with the trauma, experience ‘hyperarousal’ of my nervous system all the time, and find it hard to feel calm, safe, and secure. I have trouble sleeping and often get panic attacks (even at night).

It’s like my body’s ‘fight, flight, freeze, appease’ system is overactive all the time and confused as to how it should respond in a given situation. This can cause anger, people-pleasing, withdrawal, dissociation, anxiety and mood changes, amongst many other symptoms.

I struggle with feeling trapped in situations that others would not, and it causes me to experience the host of responses mentioned above. I struggle with daily reminders of events from over 10 years ago due to external and internal triggers eg. bodily sensations (read ‘The body keeps the score’, its brilliant!).

 I cope with this by having psychotherapy. i have an understanding partner who helps to keep me grounded if I become distressed”

– Anon

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (‘GAD’)

GAD can cause both physiological and psychological (mental) symptoms. Usually, this involves a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread that interferes with how you live your life. It is not the same as occasionally worrying about things or experiencing anxiety due to stressful life events.

Symptoms vary from person to person, but can also include feeling restless or worried, having trouble concentrating or sleeping, dizziness or heart palpitations. People with GAD tend to describe worries with recurrent ‘themes’, in particular worries that may be outside of our control. For those with GAD, uncertainty can be particularly difficult to manage.

“It’s often difficult to feel genuinely relaxed with GAD because there is always something on your mind. Frequent intrusive “what if” thoughts that pop into your mind triggered by the smallest things. It can be exhausting if left unchecked and unchallenged which is why I am so grateful for my therapist. I tend to retreat to my study and use video games to escape the real world when I am struggling to cope. I put off doing simple tasks like loading the dishwasher or putting laundry on to wash or dry.

Realising what is truly important to me has helped a lot with my motivation to challenge the intrusive thoughts, as well as putting my needs and desires before others without fear of what might happen or what people might think of me for doing so.”

– Anon

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is where you have recurring and regular panic attacks, often for no clear reason. Panic attacks involve catastrophic thinking (the worst-case scenario) about physical symptoms of anxiety, which in turn can exacerbate perceived threat and make them worse. Panic attacks may lead us to think that ‘I’m going to die’ or ‘I’m going to have a heart attack’ because they can be quite frightening to experience.

My anxiety symptoms are made up of hot flushes, a sense of panic, cramping pains in my tummy, blurred vision (I’ve even blacked out in Costa toilets before from a panic/anxiety attack overload). You could be talking to me & I’d look like I’m listening but all that’s spiralling out of control in my head is “oh my god what if I can’t find a toilet quick enough” – sheer gut-wrenching panic!. A viscous circle – anxiety causes IBS, the IBS causes anxiety!”

– Anon

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations.It is more than ‘shyness’. It’s a fear that does not go away and affects everyday activities, self confidence, relationships and work or school life.

It’s a common problem that usually starts during the teenage years. It can be very distressing and have a big impact on your life. Many people occasionally worry about social situations, but someone with social anxiety feels overly worried before, during and after them.

“The main way anxiety affects me is in a social context. On a bad day, I’ll feel at an emotional level as though all of my friends at best tolerate me being around, and at worst actively dislike me even though I know at a logical level that that isn’t true. This makes me worried about how other people perceive my behaviour which can make socialising performative, exhausting, and in extremes, detrimental to my own wellbeing.”

– Anon

Health Anxiety

Health anxiety is a condition that causes healthy people to worry that they are sick. This is often quite time-consuming and people may feel that this worry is ‘taking over’ their lives.

Symptoms include a constant worry about your health, that you may have a serious or life-threatening underlying or undiagnosed medical condition. You might be regularly checking your body for signs of illness, and have a heightened awareness of bodily sensations that could indicate that you are unwell. Seeking reassurance from others is common, but often dismissed when provided by medical professionals. There tends to be concern that any medical testing may have ‘missed something’ relevant to the feared diagnosis. You may avoid of topics related to serious illness eg. In the news or on the television, and/or research signs and symptoms of disease.

Phobias

A phobia is an overwhelming or debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal. They are more pronounced than fears, and develop when a person has a heightened or unrealistic sense of danger about a situation or object. If a phobia becomes very severe, a person might organise their life around avoiding the source of their anxiety, and restricting their daily activities. Phobias can cause a lot of distress, and symptoms can include those similar to a panic attack.

If you do not come into contact with the source of your phobia very often, then it is possible to lead a life relatively unaffected by it. ‘Specific phobias’ tend to develop during childhood and may become less severe as you get older. They include animal phobias such as dogs, spiders, snakes, or rodents, environmental phobias such as heights or deep water, situational phobias such as visiting the dentist or flying, bodily phobias such as blood, vomit, or having injections.

However, more complex phobias eg. Agoraphobia can make daily life very difficult. They usually develop during adulthood and tend to be associated with a deep-rooted anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance. Social anxiety is a complex phobia.

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Therapy Can Help!

On a positive note, anxiety can be made easier to manage with the right treatment and support. Individual therapy, in various modalities can be helpful for a range of anxiety disorders. Treatments such as CBT are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines. This approach can be complemented by ACT and other therapeutic models.

Other therapeutic formats can be helpful. For example, group therapy for social anxiety can be useful to provide exposure to the feared situation within a safe and supportive therapy context.

It can be very tricky to navigate feelings of anxiety, or an anxiety disorder diagnosis. This is where therapy can be useful. If you are in need of support, please reach out to your GP or a qualified mental health clinician.

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