My heart is beating like crazy. It’s difficult to breathe. I’m nauseated… I’m fainting… This must be a heart attack! With such symptoms, you should certainly book an appointment and consult a doctor, but very often it might be an anxiety disorder.
The most common physical symptoms of anxiety are palpitation, increased blood pressure, shaky hands, dizziness, fainting, nausea and shortness of breath. At the same time, the mind is restless, it is impossible to relax, you are unable to concentrate and remember things because your head feels like it is full of cotton, and everything around you seems surrounded in fog. An anxious person gets upset easily; they are afraid of losing control of the situation, and they can even go crazy.
The above symptoms are not only associated with anxiety disorder. The heart may be throbbing or skip beats, cold sweat can cover the whole body, and you feel dizzy – these symptoms may be the consequences of drinking alcohol or using narcotics, or they can be associated with heart disease, neurological or thyroid problems. To rule out these diseases, it would be wise to consult a specialist or have analyses taken at the general practitioner and, if necessary, have more thorough examinations.
The goal is good, but…
Anxiety has been called a modern epidemic, as statistics show its presence in the population is steadily increasing. According to family doctors and psychiatrists, 15% (and according to some data, 30%) of the Estonian population are affected by this problem. Based on our therapy clients, I can say that the figure of 30% seems right. Anxiety disorder is receiving increasing media coverage; online forums get requests for help, and articles and treatment suggestions are being shared. There should be plenty of information available, right?
Many people who come to a therapist with anxiety problems have already visited a GP, psychologist or psychiatrist but have not received any significant help. By “significant help” I mean something that would help them recover from anxiety. In most cases, a sedative or antidepressant is prescribed; sometimes the helper has the time (and the skill) to talk to the patient about their life.
In 2016, a document called “The Patient Guide” was drafted in Estonia aimed to “help the patient cope with the disease, explain the nature of the anxiety disorder, various risk factors, provide advice on ways of life and self-help that support coping with the disease, encourage visits to GP, explain the specifics of treatment for anxiety disorders, the effects of different drug groups and psychotherapy, and the importance of ongoing treatment.” A very good goal! I particularly like the part about advice on ways of life and self-help. My 10 years of experience as a therapist has revealed that most people who have an anxiety disorder lack all kinds of knowledge about what anxiety means, why and what this problem is all about, and how the body and mind are affected. They’ve learned to just live with this problem and hope it will disappear one day.
It takes me about 90 minutes to explain what the client needs. Afterward, I sometimes receive an indignant reaction: “Why has no one asked me such questions before? Why haven’t these things been explained to me?!” In the Anxiety Disorder Treatment Guide there is a recommendation to doctors: “Choose a pharmacological treatment or psychotherapy based on the patient’s preferences.” How can a person prefer one option to another when he or she has no information and if they do not understand what is happening to them? This is one reason why I have studied this issue carefully in recent years. I believe that it is an important task for therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors to share knowledge with clients and patients, to encourage them to believe that they can fully recover from anxiety disorder and to provide guidance and to inspire people to work with themselves in depth.
Healthy and unhealthy anxiety
At this point, it should be noted that anxiety is not, in itself, abnormal. There are critical situations in every person’s life that make their heart beat faster and make them gasp for air. These symptoms are not harmful or dangerous – this is the natural reaction of the body in case of stress. As stress grows, the whole body resets itself: adrenaline levels rise in the blood, muscles tighten, the heart beats faster, and as the body needs more oxygen for this effort, breathing accelerates. Since time began, this adaptation of the organism has helped human beings to deal with a threat such as an attacking wild animal or an enemy.
Nowadays, we no longer have to escape a wild animal, but we have to cope with various degrees of anxiety when taking an exam, taking the stage in an auditorium, expressing our views in conflict situations, being in an unfamiliar environment or among strangers, or in many other similar situations. Most of the time, it is a healthy anxiety or caution – we are alert and ready to react in case of unexpected events. Anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with everyday life. One example is if fear arises in a situation where there is no real danger, “as if anxiety comes unexpectedly and covers you with a dense black fog,” as one of my therapy clients described it. It is also a problem when the symptoms of anxiety persist for a long time or are intense. This can cause serious health problems such as chronic headaches, muscle tension around the neck and back, indigestion, sleeping disorders and depression.
The roots of anxiety are in the past
There are quite a few known causes of anxiety disorder in today’s science-based medicine. Heredity is often emphasised, but research has given conflicting results here. Furthermore, the argument that the brain of a patient with an anxiety disorder has something wrong with the substances responsible for neural transmission does not properly explain anything and does not help a person in distress very much. We will discuss these factors in one of the following articles.
Many of the reasons for internal unrest and anxiety are quite obvious: an excessive workload, a fast pace of life, activities on several “fronts” at the same time (multitasking), violent news and films, poor relationships, alcohol, an unhealthy diet and overuse of medications. The factors listed above rob even the most well-balanced person of peace of mind and a restful sleep! But these reasons are just on the surface.
The actual roots of anxiety are in the past, in one’s childhood, and are usually hidden deep in the unconscious. As a therapist, I believe that today, if we look for the real cause of anxiety, we should investigate them there – deep down inside a person, in the oppressed and “forgotten” layers. No matter what the symptoms, anxiety always has a deeper cause that is related to one’s childhood.
What is more, I dare say that it does not make a big difference whether the initial anxiety case is triggered by an accident or assault, whether it is manifested in the fear of crowded places, height, darkness or spiders, or whether it is a sudden, inexplicable anxiety in the supermarket aisles or the cinema. The real cause of the problem must still be sought in one’s childhood. That’s where all our unfulfilled dreams and unexpressed needs, pains, and fears are hidden. And in the middle of all this lies the fear of not being able to manage, of not being liked or of not being accepted by others, as well as of being rejected or abandoned.
One more thing I believe: anxiety never comes unexpectedly. We have the unfortunate ability to ignore warning signals like constant fatigue, powerlessness, lack of joy in life, heart-breaking misery, anger exploding in unexpected situations, or frequent illnesses. And one day the body can no longer take it. It sends a heart-pounding and oxygen-deprived message: it is high time you did something about it! One might even say that anxiety disorder is useful – it is a sign that you are now ready to examine yourself more deeply and understand in what way the past has damaged you, how your own thoughts and emotions affect your condition, and what you really want from your life. You are prepared to heal yourself so that you can breathe easily again, trust yourself and others, and enjoy life.