Mind & Spirit

Fear and anxiety disorders: The physical symptoms

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Fear and anxiety disorders: The physical symptoms

We all know what anxiety feels like: A pounding heart, sweaty palms, upset stomach. Maybe your boss just called you into her office, looking grave; maybe you just got an unexpected phone call that spells bad news. Regardless of the trigger, the physical symptoms of anxiety can literally make you sick. But while you can't always stop stressful events from occurring, you can control your reaction to them.

Understanding anxiety
"Anxiety is how you react to stressful situations," says Dr. Donna Ferguson, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. When faced with a stressful situation, the body produces excess adrenaline and cortisol, which turns on the body's ‘fight or flight' instinct. It's not uncommon to experience a pounding heart, hyperventilation, trembling, nausea, abdominal distress, headache or light headedness.

There are different kinds of anxiety. Sometimes, the trigger is an unexpected or stressful situation, leading to a pounding heart or upset stomach. General anxiety disorder is a constant feeling of worry about nothing in particular, while other anxiety disorders have specific triggers that can set off panic attacks. Some people have panic disorders, where panic attacks occur randomly. Studies have shown women to be more likely to suffer from anxiety and anxiety disorders than men.

Panic attacks
In some cases, the physical symptoms of anxiety can get out of hand, leading to a panic attack. Often, people experiencing anxiety are unable to recognise their physical symptoms as a stress reaction, and think something is physically wrong with them.

"It's a cycle," Ferguson says. "You worry about the symptoms, but the more you worry, the worse the symptoms get." Someone having a panic attack might think they are having a heart attack and end up in the emergency room before they finally calm down. "There's a fear of the symptoms, and a fear of the anxiety itself, and the anxiety is almost catastrophic," she says. While most panic attacks peak within 10 minutes of onset, they can be severe and debilitating; Ferguson notes some people think they are going to die.

Page 1 of 2 – on page 2: find out how to manage your symptoms.
Managing symptoms
To cope with anxiety, Ferguson recommends relaxing. At once obvious and seemingly impossible, relaxation is key to reducing symptoms. Things like deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization or meditaion are all easy things that can be done at a desk or in the loo to get centered and back on track. Ditch any perfectionist tendencies, while you're at it; cutting yourself some slack will go a long way to helping you relax.

Lifestyle changes can also dramatically affect the level of anxiety in your life. Like almost any other health problem, diet and exercise play a huge role in controlling anxiety. Cutting caffeine (which increases adrenaline), junk food, alcohol and other unhealthy foods from your menu can help you manage symptoms. Moderate exercise is also crucial, and while exactly what you do doesn't really matter, "Yoga is quite powerful; I think it's number one in terms of dealing with stress," Ferguson says.

Finally, aim for eight hours of shut-eye a night. "Sleep hygiene is important, because if you don't get an adequate amount of rest, you start out in an anxious mode, and anything else on top of that will just acerbate it," Ferguson says.

When to seek help
With the downturn of the economy, Ferguson says there has been an upswing in the number of people suffering from general anxiety disorder, noting many of these people are finding themselves unable to cope with their feelings.

If you're wondering if your anxious feelings are normal, Ferguson suggests asking yourself the following questions:

• How often am I experiencing these bouts of anxiety?
• Am I having more difficulty coping with my symptoms on my own?
• Is my anxiety interfering with my ability to sleep?
• Am I having trouble functioning in my daily life?

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of anxiety more often, are unable to function normally or are experiencing symptoms over long periods of time (six months, for example), it's time to get help, as you might be experiencing a panic or anxiety disorder. Visit your family doctor to get a referral to a psychiatrist, find a psychologist in your area, or visit a mental health clinician.

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Mind & Spirit

Fear and anxiety disorders: The physical symptoms

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