The type of anxiety we all feel from time to time is very different from constant anxiety, which is a mental health issue that can be debilitating and deeply distressing for the individual and their family.
Big decisions, important events and life’s normal setbacks induce feelings of anxiety as a natural reaction. This is one of the human body’s defence mechanisms. When you're feeling fearful or worried, your body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. They prepare the body for “flight or fight” by increasing heart rate for example.
Some people have triggers that bring on a particularly severe wave of anxiety – sometimes referred to as panic attacks. The starting point includes phobias, such as fear of leaving the house, open spaces, spiders or social settings.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can also leave individuals facing bouts of anxiety.
All of the above can come and go, and there is often a clear way of identifying triggers, which means you can avoid them.
Constant anxiety is a lot more invasive, has no start or finish and can continue for months. The fears are excessive and often unrealistic. It is sometimes referred to as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Individuals will experience the symptoms and effects of GAD in their own way.
In a nutshell, it means carrying anxiety around every day. It could be that it is one worry or cluster of fears that dominates for weeks on end. Or, constant anxiety can mean worrying about a great many small things all the time.
The individual who constantly worries this way will probably be aware of the situation and may even understand that many of their concerns are unfounded. However, they find it a great struggle to control their fears, even when logic tells them not to worry. It can be frustrating for friends and family whose efforts to alleviate concerns do not alter the perceptions or emotions of the individual with GAD.
If someone is in a constant state of anxiety it will affect both their physical and mental health over time. Symptoms and side effects include:
Which will mean they are tired, further reducing their ability to control their fears.
Constant anxiety is a big distraction and can stop them focusing on even the simplest of tasks.
Poor sleep and a constant state of alertness can leave the individual “highly strung”. They can be easily upset or angered.
The heightened sense of alarm can leave people with severe fatigue, and aches and pains from constantly tensing their muscles.
Constant anxiety can interfere with the normal digestive processes. The stress may lead to vomiting, diarrhoea and ultimately to long-term problems such as stomach ulcers.
The human brain and its chemical and electrical complexities are still largely a mystery to science and medicine. The equipment and procedures to measure live subjects are not yet advanced far enough to provide substantial data.
So, there is no definitive answer to what causes General Anxiety Disorder.
However, it is believed to be a mixture of the individual’s genetics (inherited traits) and biochemistry, together with their lifestyle, personal history and psychological profile.
Research shows that people who suffer from constant anxiety have a biological vulnerability to stress, which means they have a reduced ability to deal with the external factors that can induce anxiety.
MRI scans have been used to measure brain activity in people with anxiety. There is a theory that some people have a more sensitive amygdala (a part of the brain sometimes known as the fear center). The amygdala regulates memory and emotion as well as fear, and communicates a response to the rest of the body including the heart. It could explain why some people have a lower threshold for stress.
There are various medical interventions that can help alleviate GAD. A physician may prescribe things to tackle the initial symptoms (such as stomach problems and muscle tension). These are called anti-anxiety meds.
However, prolonged use of these carries with it substantial side-effects.
It may help long term if antidepressants are prescribed. These take a few weeks to take effect, but the different brands and types can create chemical reactions to soothe some level of fears and tension.
There are various therapies and self-help activities that can help people to deal with constant anxiety.
These include talking therapies, mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises. Someone with constant anxiety is advised to improve their diet and level of exercise, and find hobbies and activities that distract and soothe them.