Column: Dr Avdesh Sharma
Nervousness, tension, worry, apprehension — just some of the words we use when describing that uncomfortable mental and physical state called anxiety. It is both unpleasant and unhelpful. At times there is a good enough reason to feel anxious but often it is imagined or exaggerated. This is what happens when person has an anxiety 'attack' — heart pounds away, breathing becomes rapid and uneven, stomach churns uncomfortably, mouth goes dry, the person may blush or sweat excessively, tremble or feel dizzy. There appears to be tension all over the body. When the anxiety increases then memory fails, performance declines and confidence is eroded! It is hardly surprising that the victim of anxiety feels and looks shattered.

Is Anxiety always bad?
Everyone feels anxious sometimes like while giving an exam or an interview, or when someone dear to us is late in getting back home. A little anxiety is good as it prepares us to meet a situation and is a great motivator. But some people become habitually and intensely anxious which is when it plays havoc with their lives, robbing them of the ability to think logically and act rationally.

Why do we become Anxious?
Anxiety is a great leveler — it can strike anybody at almost anytime, across barriers of education, social class, intelligence or abilities. Some of the things that people feel anxious about are financial or legal problems, health, job, promotion, children and family, exams, choosing a career, relationships, becoming ill and growing old. At times being constantly in a state of anxiety leads to a generalised anxiety disorder — a neurotic condition, with persistent feeling of unease. This kind of an anxiety disorder is thought to arise out of severely stressful life conditions or events, early psychological trauma or even faulty learning of behavior patterns through the years. Severe anxiety and restlessness can co-exist with other physical or psychiatric illness for which a person may have to be examined by a doctor or a psychiatrist.

When to seek help?
You need to see a mental health professional when you find 
  1. that your anxiety is seriously affecting your daily life.
  2. you can't control your anxiety through your own efforts.
  3. you have so many symptoms of anxiety that you are worried about the state of your health.
  4. you have started taking tranquilisers or alcohol to cope with it.

Anxiety may be the precursor of a bigger mental problem which if caught early can be effectively treated. The psychiatrist/psychologist would check the nature, reasons and intensity of the anxiety to decide the course of treatment. It could be a combination of medication, psychotherapy or counseling, special methods like relaxation therapy, autogenic training, machine assisted relaxation and biofeedback apart from self help techniques.

Self-help Techniques

  1. Anxiety signals a need to think of the way you are living your life, and the problems you have. Work out a plan of action for each of your major problems and take positive action.
  2. Learn Yoga, relaxation or meditation. Breathing exercises are specially helpful.
  3. Keep a careful record of the situations that make you anxious. This may help you to work out what you can do in each situation.
  4. Take time to give yourself physical relaxation or take up your favorite sport or hobby. Take holidays when possible. 

Many a times in the present ‘Age of Anxiety’, the problems seem insurmountable but in retrospect they may appear trivial. It is important to hold on with the help of friends, family, counselor and psychiatrist, so that once having conquered the problem, you learn to fight bigger battles ahead!

—Dr Avdesh Sharma is a celebrated mental health expert and chairperson, 'Media and Public Education Committee’ of ‘Psychiatry in Developing Countries Section’ of the World Psychiatric Association.

March 2006

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