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Anxiety - Information Sheet

What is anxiety?

It’s the feeling that signals danger is near and is associated with distressing thoughts about something bad going to happen. It is also accompanied by bodily reactions such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, dizziness, feeling faint. Some people may not find anything to be afraid of, yet they still feel a dread.

Fear is a normal reaction to danger. Anxiety is a diffuse, generalized sense of impending danger sometimes when there is no actual danger present. Lots of things can make people afraid and prone to worry: a job interview, public speaking engagement, what might happen to their children or other loved ones, past trauma etc.

Sometimes anxiety is accompanied by the sense that threats are uncontrollable or unavoidable. Some one who feels like this may be unable to function well in everyday life.  They may be constantly agitated and upset.


Is anxiety normal?

Anxiety can be a normal response to danger or stress and can help a person deal with a difficult situation. However, it can become irrational and overwhelming, unrelated to anything externally going on when a person is unable to find effective ways of managing their fear.

Traumatic events such as accidents, assaults, working in high stress environments where life and death decisions and actions occur can lead to anxiety responses which are sometimes delayed.

People who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are likely to be those who experience an intense emotional, physical and mental state of fear that interferes with their ability to get on with their daily lives and can result in setting up a life that is characterized by constant fear, narrowed, overly controlled, empty, devoid of joy, with little achievement.


Fight, fight, freeze, control as ways to manage anxiety

Some people can’t move when afraid, they ‘freeze’; some run away to avoid the situation (flight), some use aggression or become very assertive in their determination not to let the situation get the better of them (fight).  Another type of ‘flight’ response is to try to control circumstances or people in order to avoid feeling out of control oneself.


Anxiety can shrink your life

Humans are wired to avoid pain and fearful situations, people or events. The main ways to do this is to remove ourselves from the situation.  However, too much avoidance of anything fearful can have the effect of shrinking our lives whether our fears are based on reality or not. Every time a person avoids what they fear they miss the opportunity to learn coping skills to manage their fear. Whereas confronting fear, step at a time, reduces fear. The more you face what you fear the better you are able to cope with it.


What causes anxiety?

It is believed that some people are born predisposed to feeling fearful, that there is a hereditary component. When this predisposition is combined with certain difficult life events it can produce anxiety in some individuals. Life events such as accidents or other traumatic circumstances, abuse, bullying, relationship breakdown, workplace conflict can become stress factors that challenge a person's ability to cope, leaving them vulnerable or susceptible to anxiety.

Brain chemistry is different in someone with anxiety. The mood-regulating neurotransmitters are abnormal in people with anxiety but it’s not known why or how the neurotransmitters become abnormal.

People who are anxious engage in thinking which makes their situation worse.


Treatment for anxiety

There are treatments such as specifically targeted medications and psychological intervention that have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. Various kinds of anti-anxiety medication can help to restore the brain's chemical balance to reduce levels of fear and can be obtained from a GP or psychiatrist. However, these treatments alone are unlikely to alter the years of controlled and restricted behaviour. Generally anti-anxiety medications allow a person to be more open to psychological intervention.

Psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been shown to be effective in the management of anxiety disorders.  It is well recognized that a person’s habitual thinking and problem solving mechanisms prevent them from addressing their fears, that their solutions (of avoidance) are part of the problem. Psychological interventions such as CBT offer support, ways to alter thinking patterns and habitual avoidant or ineffective behaviours and to work systematically with small fears until coping skills are developed and experiences of success are integrated. Relaxation training and visualization as well as the use of self talk are common strategies that can assist a person to manage their anxiety.


How do you know if you have anxiety? Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of intense physical agitation, sweatiness, dizziness, increased heart rate, quick breathing, difficulty breathing, upset stomach, nausea or the desire to run (this is due to arousal of the central nervous system leading to physical symptoms)
  • Restlessness, aggression, repeated checking (eg to see if everything is locked), repeated washing (to get rid of live destroying germs)
  • Constant worry that ia distressing and interferea with daily living.
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance behaviour
  • Over use of alcohol and other drugs

Tips on managing anxiety

  • Identify the specific situations and triggers that make you anxious and feel as though you’re not able to cope. You could keep a journal of what happens inside and outside of you when you notice feeling anxious
  • Identify your ‘worrying thoughts’ with a view to using them to formulate problems you must solve. Think of it as a problem solving exercise
  • Write down your problems and ways to solve them (set out below)
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other drugs as much as possible
  • Talk to family and friends about your worries and listen to what they have to say even if you disagree
  • Make sure you create ‘chill out’ moments in your day when you stop any worries with an act of will and make yourself focus on something that pleases you
  • Learn to relax – take up yoga or other relaxation techniques
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat well and go to bed regularly
  • If you worry in bed, force yourself to think distracting thoughts or get up to do something quiet and relaxing
  • Plan your days. If your schedule is causing you panic about meeting deadlines, work on changing what you do to slow down your pace and to include relaxation and ‘chill out’ times.


Get help if you cannot change things on your own, don’t beat yourself up for not being an expert on anxiety – you don’t have to go it alone.

Contact your GP for a referral to a mental health professional, phone a crisis line, go on the web to sites such as:

beyondblue Australia  www.beyondblue.org.au - Phone: 1300 22 4636

Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression

www.crufad.com/cru_index.html - Phone: (02) 8382 1749


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