We can all feel anxious at particularly stressful times in our lives, or even when just coping with the demands and worries of everyday life. Whether it is juggling responsibilities at work and home, worrying about the children, or getting along with your partner, life can be extremely demanding – particularly for women.
So it’s only natural that we all experience feelings of anxiety at sometimes, and most of us live our lives with some level of anxiety. However, when the thoughts, feelings and symptoms of anxiety are severe and occur in the absence of any real threat or danger, anxiety becomes a disorder that can limit our activities and severely reduce the quality of our lives. The good news is that anxiety disorders respond well to treatment, and you can be effectively helped to regain control.
What is normal anxiety?
Anxiety feelings occur along a spectrum – sometimes we may feel a little bit anxious or nervous while other occasions may make us feel overwhelmed and panicky. Some anxiety is necessary and can act as a motivator or a protector — for example, anxiety can help us to prepare for an exam or a presentation at work, or stop us crossing the road when there is a car too close.
What can I do to help myself when I feel anxious?
- Breathing deeply can be extremely effective in calming the physical symptoms of anxiety.
- Don’t be afraid to tell people you trust that you’re feeling anxious.
- Asking for help and support at home, at work or in other areas of your life can also reduce stress.
- Regular exercise is great for managing anxiety. You might like to go for a walk, a swim, or work up a sweat at the gym. If you find your thoughts are still focused on fear or worry while you are exercising, try listening and deliberately focusing on soothing music, or set yourself the task of counting or deliberately observing your surroundings.
- Check your local neighbourhood centre for low cost relaxation classes like yoga, tai chi or meditation. Choose the exercise or relaxation that suits you – not everyone likes the same thing.
- Have a look at your diet and slowly go about changing what you’re eating and drinking. Caffeine, alcohol and mood-altering drugs can worsen anxiety.
- Read self-help books or web sites about managing anxiety.
What are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem in Australia, with around one in four people experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Some common types of anxiety disorders are:
Panic disorder: A panic attack is an extreme version of our body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response, which normally prepares us to face danger. Our heart beats faster to send more blood to our muscles, which tense, ready for movement. Our breathing speeds up to make more oxygen available for the body and sweating cools our active body down.
The physical sensations of the panic attack can be very frightening; some people report they feel like they are having a heart attack and are going to die. Often the fear of having another attack leads people to avoid the place or situation where the panic attack occurred, which severely limits their activities.
Social anxiety disorder: People with social anxiety feel more than the usual shyness. They think other people are judging them and thinking negatively about them all the time and are concerned that they may do something in public that causes them embarrassment. Because of their high level of anxiety about social interactions, they may avoid situations where they might be the centre of attention, drop out of university courses or limit their employment opportunities.
Generalised anxiety disorder: The person experiences a consistently high level of anxiety, characterised by worry that’s out of proportion to their problems. These worries are often about a variety of minor issues and events that are unlikely to occur, rather than realistic worries.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Following a traumatic experience, the person continues to be distressed for an extremely long time after the event. Vivid memories, nightmares and hallucinations are common. Assault, rape and domestic violence are common traumatic experiences for women which may result in PTSD.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): The person is plagued by persistent and very distressing thoughts which are often about the fear of dirt and germs, or that they are likely to cause harm to others. The person tries to calm these fears through ritualistic and repetitive behaviours, like hand washing, checking, repetitive rituals or seeking reassurance from others.
Specific phobias: Excessive anxiety and fear about a particular thing, such as flying, dogs, blood etc. These things – like spiders, for example – can often actually be dangerous, but the level of fear is out of proportion to the actual likelihood of threat.
Again, people’s avoidance can impact on their ability to fully participate in life.
There are also other anxiety disorders, which are listed on the ARCVic website.
What causes anxiety disorders?
There is no specific cause responsible for the development of an anxiety disorder. Rather, a number of things can make a person more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder, such as:
- A family history of anxiety
- A traumatic childhood
- An overprotected childhood
- Excessive drug use (cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy, alcohol)
- Personality factors
Help for anxiety disorders
Good treatment has been shown to help women whose anxiety is severe enough to be classed a ‘disorder’ to greatly reduce their anxiety and lead a full life. Research has demonstrated that some treatments are more effective than others.
Therapy or counselling
As difficult or daunting as it may seem at first, talking to a therapist such as a psychologist or counsellor can help you to pinpoint what triggers your anxiety and to learn practical skills to manage, and eventually overcome, your symptoms. A specific counselling technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to have a high success rate for helping people with anxiety disorders. CBT counselling teaches you to ‘reprogram’ your anxious thoughts and gives you strategies to use when you feel anxiety coming on, helping you to tackle it quickly and effectively.
It’s a good idea to ask a potential counsellor about their experience with and approach to working with people with anxiety disorders. You can claim up to 10 individual and group therapy sessions for your anxiety per year through Medicare if your GP refers you. See our Counselling post for more tips on how to look for a counsellor.
Tranquillisers (benzodiazepines) or antidepressants can effectively reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Taking benzodiazepines for longer than two to three weeks is not recommended, because there is a high risk you may become dependent on these drugs. Anti-depressants are not habit-forming.
Generally speaking, medication is not an answer by itself and usually works best in combination with other therapies. For example, you may find medication can give you the relief and ‘head space’ you need to really get the most out of your counselling. If you are advised by a professional to take medication, take some time to make your decision.
Do some research for yourself – the more you know about the medication and its effects, the less anxious you will feel. There are many websites and organisations that can give you information to help you make this decision.
Meditation practice has been shown to reduce anxiety. It helps you to understand the way your mind works, and how your thinking contributes to your anxiety. Meditation does not have to be spiritual or ‘new age’. You will be amazed at how helpful just tuning into your body and breathing can be in managing your anxiety – regular practice can give you skills to manage even intense panic attacks.
Talking to people who have felt the same way and sharing your feelings and ways of coping is really helpful. It’s great to offer and receive support and to know you are not alone with your problem. You can join a group that meets regularly. You can also talk to other people with anxiety disorders on the internet.
There are many good books by reputable authors available that describe ways to better manage your anxiety symptoms.
Why do women have higher rates of anxiety?
There are almost twice as many women diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as men. Although women’s hormonal changes – such as PMT and menopause – can increase anxiety levels, current research suggests they don’t actually contribute to or increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. In other words, although we may feel more anxious at these times, it is usually within the normal range of anxiety and not an anxiety disorder.
Some research points to psychological and cultural factors playing an important role. Many women in our society learn to be less assertive, which makes them more vulnerable to stress. Women may also be more liable to experience trauma and helplessness due to their lack of power, such as in an abusive relationship or a sexual assault.
Our culture tells us that feelings of fear, vulnerability, and even shyness are signs of weakness. Women are taught from childhood to ‘grin and bear it’ and they may become very good at disguising their anxiety. It is common for women with anxiety to also experience depression. For more information see our post on Depression.
- Counselling services
- Community health centres
- Family doctor (GP)
- Self-help and mutual support groups
Where do I go for help?
- WIRE Women’s Support Line 1300 134 130
- OCD & Anxiety Helpline 03 9830 0533/ 1300 ANXIETY/ 1300 269 438 Anxiety Recovery Centre
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Suicide Line Victoria 1300 651 251
- Reconnexion 1300 273 266 Treating panic, anxiety, depression & tranquilliser dependency
- beyondblue 1300 224 636
- 1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732 National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service
WIRE would like to thank ARCVic for their assistance in updating this information sheet in 2019.