We've all experienced doubts, worries and anxiety; it's normal. Whatever it is that worries you and makes you anxious, it can be an annoying distraction that makes you feel uncomfortable. But too often, anxiety can make you physically unwell and leave you unable to think about anything else whatsoever.
A 2014 survey of 2,330 people in the UK carried out by YouGov for The Mental Health Foundation (the UK's leading mental health research, policy and service improvement charity) revealed that almost one in five people feel anxious "nearly all of the time" or "a lot of the time."
Of course, different people worry about different things but the report found that as well as the unemployed, students and young people are more likely to feel anxious 'all of the time' or 'a lot of the time.'
It would be easy to assume that the pressures and uncertainties of modern life are making us more anxious. However, The MHF's report concludes that "anxiety stems as much from concern for family, friends and relationships as it does from the demands of the outside world."
So, people can experience anxiety in relation to just about anything. The majority of anxiety sufferers are able to function on a day to day basis - albeit with difficulty. But it is possible to worry so much that it starts to have a noticeable impact on your daily life.
Why? Why does anxiety have such a debilitating effect?
In my work in mental health, I've found that for most people, the structure and nature of anxiety remains unexplained and unknown. And yet as Freud observed, anxiety is "a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light upon our whole mental existence."
So what exactly is the nature of the 'riddle' of anxiety?
Anxiety has a positive intent
Anxiety is an emotion. Emotions cause us to feel, think and act in different ways; to do something or avoid doing something.
All emotions, including anxiety, actually have a positive intent; the aim and purpose of any emotion is to prompt you to respond in helpful, constructive ways.
Feeling anxious about an exam or giving a presentation, for example, can prompt you to prepare well, revise and sharpen your focus. However, like many emotions, anxiety becomes a problem if, instead of prompting you to respond in a way that's helpful, it overwhelms or paralyses you.
Three aspects of anxiety
As well as understanding that anxiety has a positive purpose, it's also helpful to know that anxiety, like all emotions, has three aspects;
• Physical feelings
There is no particular order in which these aspects of anxiety - or any other emotion - occurs, but any one aspect can affect the others; how you think, feel and act are intrinsically linked.
1. The physical aspect of anxiety involves the physical changes that occur in your body; the internal bodily changes you experience such as muscle tension, rapid breathing, pounding heart, 'butterflies' in your stomach. The physical aspects help your body to take action in a potentially difficult situation but if there's no real threat to respond to, your body can feel tense and wired for quite a long time.
2. The cognitive aspect of anxiety is your thoughts; the negative, distressing thoughts about what could or will happen. The aim of these thoughts is to prompt you to consider positive ways to manage the potential situation or event. But too often, the negative, upsetting thoughts paralyse or overwhelm you. So if, for example, anxious thoughts about exams flood and dominate your mind, they can prevent you from focusing and make it difficult to think clearly.
3. The behavioural aspect of anxiety is the things you do or don't do when you're feeling anxious. As well as responding to anxious thoughts and feelings by doing something, your behaviour might involve not doing something; avoidant behaviour. So in the example of the exam, you might actually rid yourself of anxiety by avoiding revising and not turning up to sit the exam.
Self-Sustaining Nature of Anxiety
Seeing anxiety in terms of thoughts, physical feelings and behaviour makes it easier to see how they are connected and how they affect you. You can also see how anxiety can be self-sustaining; one aspect can feed another.
The next step is to identify ways to manage each aspect of anxiety; to learn and develop a range of techniques and strategies that work for you; different approaches work for different people.
Yes, it can be relentless and hard work, but anxiety can be those things too. Learning to manage the aspects of anxiety is much more helpful than being controlled by them!