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How anxiety has become a modern epidemic

Thursday, April 12, 2018


Everybody feels anxious at some point in their lives; starting a new job, trying to impress a date, sitting an exam, we expect to feel agitated and nervous, the butterflies fluttering in our stomachs. But for those suffering from anxiety or panic disorders such feelings are much stronger and more frequent. There is usually a sense of danger or threat, of not being able to cope with what might happen. Or it could be more of an ‘irrational’ fear - a “what if” – or what some people call ‘nameless dread’ that can take in every catastrophe imaginable.

And anxiety is more common and harmful than we may want to admit, according to the findings of a major University of Cambridge report, published in the medical journal Brain and Behaviour. More than 8 million people in the UK suffer some sort of anxiety disorder and women and people under 35 are especially affected.

We viscerally respond to perceived threats, just as our ancestors did, when hunting for food was a life-threatening excursion. These days the most dangerous thing most of us do is drive a car but our brains will still default to “fight, flight or freeze” when faced with danger and that’s what causes our cortisol levels to rise to unhealthy levels.

“These reactions are instinctive,” “they aren't the result of conscious thought.” But the symptoms feel very real. People suffering from anxiety disorders often experience irritability, dizziness, nervousness and sleep badly; they may get breathless, sweaty, shake and have nausea and diarrhoea as their bodies respond to the cortisol washing through them.  At work they might steer clear of any chance of confrontation, or shy away from taking on anything difficult in case they fail. Socially they may opt out of arrangements at the last minute, assuming that no one will want to talk to them.

People can also end up simply ‘fearing the fear’. Some clients who are doing well with their therapeutic treatment but can’t stop themselves thinking: what will happen if the anxiety returns? “This type of anxiety is actually the most threatening of all because it often appears when everything seems positive, and as such it can be extremely destabilising.”

Until now conversations around mental health have tended to focus on depression, but the report last week, which was a review of 48 studies from across the world suggested anxiety could be a much bigger problem. The US scored the highest number of people affected by anxiety - 8 in 100 - while in East Asia the figure was 3 in 100.  It found that more than 60 million people were affected by anxiety disorders every year in the EU.

People with anxiety tend to be hyper-vigilant to negativity and worry excessively about the future whereas those with depression tend to dwell on bad things about themselves. Many researchers now believe that a lack of dopamine – linked to reward and pleasure – is related to depression, but not anxiety.

But the big question is why it is becoming such an issue now, specifically affecting those born since 1980. One theory is that we are while we are digitally connected, we are less connected to each other.  Daily life is also less communal and collaborative particularly when compared with life a few hundred years ago. And yet, we all want to be accepted and liked. Being excluded from a group to which they want to belong is a real terror for many young people today. Millennials may call it FOMO (fear of missing out) but it is also fear of being left out.

Added to this are millennials’ fears about the future: will they be able to find a good job, afford to live independently, buy their own homes, so they too can have marriages and families like their parents did?

So what can be done to alleviate anxiety? Therapy.  It isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it certainly helps people to find a happier place.

NICE recommends that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is suitable treatment for people with anxiety or panic disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But this is largely because CBT is the style of therapy that has the best research data behind it. The Counselling Directory statistics on mental health say that anxiety is the most frequently stated problem by people seeking therapists, and many different types of therapists and counsellors treat people - adolescents and adults - for anxiety and panic disorders. As one therapist told me ironically, “It’s anxiety-depression - almost one word, and it’s everywhere.”

But if weekly therapy sessions are not for you, there are many small changes that can help move the dial on your anxiety.

  • Take time out to relax;
  • Learn to breathe through your panic;
  • Try mindfulness meditation;
  • Don’t try to be perfect. 

Also take a hard look at your diet and exercise regime. Australian clinical psychologist Dr Lynette Roberts at the UTS Graduate School of Health in Sydney said this week, ”There is a lot to suggest that imbalances in gut bacteria are linked with changes in mood and behaviour. Studies involving probiotics are already showing they can arrest the thought processes that make people more vulnerable to mood disorders.”

Exercise is another good defence often lessening the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. And that’s just what’s available now.

There may be more anxiety about, but we are constantly coming up with new ways to combat it. The important thing is: if you don’t deal with it, anxiety can be seriously life-limiting, and that’s no fun at all.





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