Understanding Anxiety

In our busy modern world, anxiety disorders are on the increase. A Guardian article of September 2020, for example, refers to an ‘explosion of anxiety’ which has seen this mental health problem increase significantly over the past decade. The article is based on research which has shown that this increase has been linked to a number of factors including austerity, Brexit, climate change and the rise of social media. In more recent months, of course, the global Covid-19 pandemic has also had a huge impact on our emotional health and well-being.

This research refers to findings from one of the biggest studies of anxiety undertaken in the UK for many years, which examines trends in diagnosis and treatment by GPs since 1998, by analysing 6.6 million patients at 795 practices across the UK. The analysis discovered that there had been a ‘massive increase, a profound increase’ in anxiety, beginning in 2008 and triggered by the global financial crash, which led to unemployment and financial insecurity for many people.

So what do these increases ‘look like’? Well, looking at the figures, in 2008, for example, just over 8% of women aged 18-24 were found to be suffering from anxiety – a figure that had almost quadrupled to over 30% by 2018. Women aged 25-34 with anxiety more than doubled over that time to 21% and there were smaller increases among older age groups, up to 55. Similarly, the incidence of anxiety in young and middle-aged men follow the same trajectory, although the figures remain higher for women in comparison.

Professor Freemantle, who led this study, comments that the findings ‘illustrate the human cost of what was going on in society at the time’ – recession, hardship, financial insecurity, all of which contribute to feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness and panic.

Of course, uncertainty is a part of life – ironically, change is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain of. However, events such as severe recessions and more recently Covid-19, produce uncertainty in quite literally, epidemic proportions. The latter, for example, impacts almost every aspect of daily life from education to health to employment. Moreover, the usual protective factors such as family support and friendships have been compromised with restrictions limiting social interaction. Covid-19 then has provided a challenging mix of increasing risk factors whilst also pulling the rug away in terms of the things that might usually serve to cushion the blow.

The mental health site www.beyondblue.org contains many personal stories from sufferers of anxiety, and other mental health conditions. One contributor, Bianca, talks of her experience with anxiety as something which came ‘out of the nowhere and hit (her) like a ton of bricks’. Everyone has a different experience of anxiety but there are a raft of physical symptoms, as well as mental anguish, and for Bianca, these included ‘jitteriness’, loss of appetite, sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate and palpitations. The latter can be extremely frightening, because they are associated with heart problems, which can lead people with anxiety to start to worry that they may be really ill or even dying. This happened to Bianca, who actually called an ambulance when she had her second panic attack. She was treated initially as an emergency because her heart was at 180bpm at rest, a hugely inflated and potentially dangerous figure.

This experience exacerbated Bianca’s anxiety as she was constantly worrying about another panic attack. This was so severe that she gave up her job, as she was too scared to drive to work, in case she had another. She also experienced difficulty eating, and many of her family and friends developed concerns about eating disorders, not realising that actually anxiety was at the root of her issues.

It is this myriad of different symptoms which can prevent anxiety disorders being diagnosed, even by medical practitioners. Bianca’s story had a happy ending eventually, but for a long time, she was misunderstood by family, friends and even her GP. Bianca didn’t share here emotional distress for a long time, and the physical symptoms were ambiguous. Opening up to people is the first step to getting a correct diagnosis then, because it gives those symptoms an emotional context.

Help is out there and anxiety is not a life sentence – if you feel able to reach out and ask for support. And that is always worth it.