What is anxiety?
Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life, whether it’s a job interview, meeting a partner’s whānau for the first time, or if you’re about to have a baby (pēpi).
Some anxiety is helpful – it helps us react to stresses or potential threats, by quickening our reflexes and focusing our attention, and it usually settles once the stressful situation has passed.
Anxiety is when those feelings don't go away, they’re extreme for the situation, and you can’t seem to control them.
When anxiety is severe or there all the time, it makes it hard to cope with daily life.
- are quite intense
- last for weeks, months or can keep going up and down over many years
- negatively affect your thoughts (whakaaro), behaviour and general health
- leave you feeling distressed and not enjoying life.
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like pain, a pounding heart or stomach cramps. For some people these physical symptoms are their main concern.
Anxiety can also affect other areas of your life – like your ability to cope, perform at work (mahi), and can affect your relationships with friends and whānau.
It is common for people who have anxiety to also feel depressed. The symptoms of anxiety and depression can overlap. You might want to take a look at the depression information too.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Worrying and the symptoms of anxiety can creep up on you gradually. This can make it hard to know how much worrying is too much.
Some common anxiety symptoms include:
- hot and cold flushes
- racing heart
- tight feeling in the chest or chest pains
- struggling to breathe
- snowballing worries that get bigger and bigger
- a racing mind full of thoughts
- a constant need to check things are right or clean
- persistent worrying ideas that seem 'silly or crazy' (pōrangi).
If you think you have any of these symptoms, you might want to look at the different types of anxiety disorders below.
Types of anxiety
The notes here on the different kinds of anxiety and are not meant to give a diagnosis. But you might find them useful if, when you see a doctor, psychologist or counsellor they use these terms.
There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, but these are the most common:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is when people worry about a number of things, on most days for six or more months. It usually affects young adults, and women more than men. The anxiety is about a wide range of situations and issues, not just one specific event. It can be hard to control it and finds its way into all parts of daily life.
Phobias are extreme and irrational fears about a particular thing. The can be so great that the person goes to great lengths to avoid it, even if it’s harmless. For example social phobia is fear of being judged or embarrassed in public, even in everyday situations like when eating, speaking at work or making small talk. Another type is agoraphobia, often thought to be a fear of open spaces. It is also a fear of being closed in, or away from a safe place or person who makes you feel safe. It can be extremely disabling and frightening, and can leave people unable to leave their home.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is when a person has unwanted, intrusive, persistent or repetitive thoughts (whakaaro), feelings, ideas, or sensations (obsessions) which cause anxiety. So they then carry out actions to reduce the anxiety or get rid of those thoughts. For example, the person may be afraid of germs and try to relieve the anxiety through repeated hand washing or avoiding touching things like door knobs. They may know these thoughts (whakaaro) are unreasonable but be unable to stop them. When OCD is severe and left untreated, it can be very distressing, and get in the way of work (mahi), school (kura) and normal life at home.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a reaction to a highly stressful event outside the range of everyday experience when a person feels very unsafe or threatened. These are unusual experiences such as war, violent attack (verbal, physical or sexual) or a natural disaster. The symptoms usually include irritability, anxiety, flashbacks, repeated nightmares, and avoiding situations that might bring back memories of the event.
Panic Disorder is when a person has panic attacks. These are intense feelings of anxiety along with the kind of physical symptoms and overwhelming sensations you would have if you were in great danger, like a pounding heart, feeling faint, sweating, shaky limbs, nausea, chest pains, breathing discomfort and feelings of losing control. The symptoms rise and peak rapidly. The effects can be so severe that people experiencing panic attacks can believe they are dying. Despite being frightening and very uncomfortable they are not life threatening.