Mental health: Understanding anxiety

At times, feelings of anxiety can become overwhelming and even debilitating. If you are a carer you might be feeling enhanced anxiety due to the pandemic, so reaching out for help is vital.

Anxiety is a natural response that affects everyone, but when feelings of anxiety begin to take over day-today life, it becomes a barrier. That’s why recognising feelings of anxiety and seeking support is so pertinent.

Identifying anxiety

The symptoms of anxiety can be split into three categories: psychological, physical and behavioural. Nicky Lidbetter is the chief executive at Anxiety UK, a user-led organisation supporting people who have anxiety, stress, anxiety-based depression or a phobia that is affecting daily life.

“There’s the psychological symptoms like having thoughts of ‘I can’t cope’ and being worried that you’re losing control,” identifies Nicky. “Along with psychological symptoms people with anxiety experience physical symptoms and often struggle to understand that.”

Anxiety causes a release of adrenaline, leading to increased heart rate and muscle tension, but there are other physical symptoms that can easily be mistaken for different issues, Nicky explains: “People say they have a sore head all of the time or they constantly feel sick or have no appetite, these can be classic symptoms.

“If you haven’t had anxiety yourself then you don’t understand how awful it can be.”

Your symptoms could be labelled as behavioural if you are doing things differently than usual or not doing things any more out of fear.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has raised enhanced concerns about mental health, and anxiety is no exception.

“Our long-term study of how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health indicates that people are feeling increased anxiety,” explains Jolie Goodman, programmes manager for empowerment and later life at the Mental Health Foundation.

“As a society, we are facing greater uncertainty: Huge change, loss for what we probably did not appreciate we had and we feel collectively less safe than we used to.”

At its highest, Anxiety UK saw a 440 per cent increase in calls to its free helpline during lockdown.”

Supporting carers

In a time where carers are often faced with extra responsibilities and stress, both their mental and physical health are also at risk.

One service supporting carers experiencing anxiety is the Oxfordshire Carer’s Support Service which is run by mental health charity Rethink. Rosamund (Ros) Forbes is a mental health recovery worker at the service.

“With the person they are supporting often there is a lot of anxiety around them and the unknown,” sympathises Ros. “It’s different than anxiety for someone who cannot pin point the reason why.

“This anxiety is actually born out of their circumstances and so I think it’s important to normalise it for people. What they’re feeling is a natural response and there’s nothing wrong with them.”

As other healthcare services remain on pause or turn to virtual appointments, carers have been left to pick up the pieces with little idea of when things will return to normal.

“In the giving of care, we can also end up having our own wellbeing eroded and it’s so important to look after yourself,” reinforces Nicky. “It doesn’t have to be formal, it can just be scheduling in time for yourself.”

Ensuring you are healthy as a carer will help you to better care for your loved one or dependant, Ros says: “We do know it’s hard for carers to take time out for themselves and you can’t know what’s going to happen to the person you care for but you can try to keep yourself well.”

Anxiety and disability

Although anxiety can affect anyone, it can be particularly detrimental to people with existing health conditions and exacerbate certain symptoms leading to physical reactions.

“Things like auto-immune conditions which flare up and those flares can be triggered by anxiety, once they are triggered it becomes cyclical, the more you are unwell with your illness the more you might feel depressed or anxious,” explains Nicky.

“Especially for people who have disabilities and long-term conditions, I’m in that camp too and I know from my own living that it’s important to look after your mental health, if you don’t then you pay for it with your physical health.”

If you feel that anxiety is increasing symptoms of your disability, speak to your healthcare provider.

Seeking guidance

Without proper help and support, anxiety can lead to further health problems, Ros continues: “I always refer to anxiety and depression like a married couple, they always hang out together, so the stress of the anxiety will ultimately lead to depression and it’s a vicious cycle.”

There are many ways to seek support for anxiety and how it is affecting your day-to-day life might influence where you turn to for help.

“It’s good to share your experiences and get tips from others who have been there,” suggests Nicky. “There’s no need to suffer alone, there’s a lot of help and support out there now, we are no longer in the dark ages of mental health.”

Numerous organisations exist to support people struggling with mental health problems including anxiety, but alongside these services your first port of call should be your GP. They can rule out any physical conditions that could be contributing to your anxiety and refer you for specialist support.

“Being able to manage stress and challenges will have a positive impact on your overall wellbeing,” stresses Jolie.

Whether you have previous experiences of anxiety or have recently experienced high levels of anxiety for the first time, it isn’t shameful and you are not alone. Seeking support at an early stage will help you to manage your anxiety and live a mentally healthy life.

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