Managing anxiety: how to feel more in control
Anxiety affects 1 in 4 Australians. Here’s what it can feel like, and the treatments that may help.
On the outside, Amanda Linton looked like she was content and in control. The successful small business owner was an industry leader and admired by her peers. But Linton felt stressed and worried all the time. Over 4 years, her symptoms became so severe that she had a breakdown and was eventually diagnosed with anxiety.
“I dismissed my symptoms for a long time because I was growing a business and people looked up to me,” says Linton. “It took a breakdown to show me that what I was feeling wasn't normal and it was more than stress.”
She had trouble sleeping, withdrew from her usual activities, avoided situations where she thought she might be challenged or judged and was “excessively worrying and obsessing over things.”
“I got to a point where I physically couldn't live up to expectations or put myself in front of people. A close friend rallied around me and said I needed help.”
She says her anxiety feels like constantly being challenged and out of control, and it had a substantial impact on her quality of life. “It was a feeling I couldn't shake,” she says. “It caused me to question my self-worth, whether I was doing the right thing and what other people were thinking about me all the time.”
Stress or anxiety?
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia.
While there may be crossover in the symptoms, anxiety as a disorder is more than feeling stressed or anxious in response to a given trigger. Stress is a normal part of life and usually passes once the stressor – like a deadline or public speaking – goes away.
Anxiety is extreme worry that happens without any particular reason or cause and doesn’t go away.
Dr Grant Blashki, a GP and lead clinical advisor at Beyond Blue, says anxiety can have a mild impact on some people, while others find it seriously affects their quality of life. “People feel exhausted because their mind is racing all the time, they have trouble sleeping and it can affect their home life and relationships, and their capacity to work,” he says.
Anxiety often isn’t caused by a single factor but a combination of things. This could include a family history of mental health conditions, chronic physical health issues, or certain personality traits. Stress – from toxic personal relationships, traumatic events or, as in Linton’s case, work – is another risk factor.
If anxiety is affecting your life, you may want to talk to your GP about treatment options. You can also do the Beyond Blue anxiety checklist online to see if you may have low, moderate or high levels of anxiety.
For some people, discussing lifestyle changes and relaxation techniques with a GP are enough to curb mild symptoms, says Dr Blashki.
“Most people like to avoid heavy-duty medical treatments, and a lot of people get better with basic changes to diet, exercise, stress management and sleep.”
Exercise burns stress chemicals and promotes relaxation, and keeping active may also increase the level of brain serotonin – the neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood, sleep, appetite and other body functions.
If you have higher-level anxiety, and these measures aren’t helping, you can talk to your doctor about THIS WAY UP, a low-cost online course run by the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. You can also self-refer if you choose.
If you and your doctor decide you’d benefit from seeing a mental health professional, you may be able to get a Medicare benefit for up to 10 sessions through the government’s Better Access program. This includes video conferencing if you live in a rural or remote area.
How Linton manages her anxiety
Linton says she has learned to identify her major stressors and ways to combat them. She now starts the day with a short walk and says, “if I feel myself getting overwhelmed and stressed at work, I get up and go for a walk”.
She also has a playlist of calming music saved on her phone for stressful situations, and has coping strategies for better work-life balance. “Weekends are off limits for work – under no circumstances do I work on the weekend,” she says. “That was a big shift for me.”
As for public speaking engagements and networking events, Linton says identifying what’s really important in a situation helps her to stay in control.
“If I walk into a room of people I don't know, which is one of the situations that used to set my anxiety through the roof, I think about why I'm there and what's important, like meeting new people and making new business contacts,” she says.
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