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Anxiety: What does it mean? Do we all experience it?

Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is a campaign to kickstart an important conversation and help people open up about mental health issues. This year, the theme is anxiety. 

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid of things that are about to happen or we think will happen in the future. It is a natural human response when we feel under threat. We may experience anxiety through our thoughts, feelings and physically.

Experiencing anxiety at some stage in your life, particularly when going through challenging times is perfectly normal. If it persists and you cannot find ways to reduce it, however, it can become a mental health problem that prevents you from living the life that you want.

In the UK, over eight million people will be experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time (1). The NHS consider anxiety a ‘common condition’, affecting around four percent of people, making it nearly as common as diabetes (2). In some cases, people can develop anxiety disorders including General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and phobias. You can find out more about these disorders on the MHAW website

How might anxiety affect you?

Anxiety can affect your behaviour and the way you think and feel about things. This might include:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • A sense of dread or fear
  • Feeling on edge
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Irritability

Your anxiety may lead you to withdraw from family, friends and social situations. You may also find working stressful and struggle with your usual tasks, causing you to take time off and further increasing your anxiety.

You might also experience a physical reaction:

  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Changes in your heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pains
  • Feeling sick
  • Lack of sleep

If you experience sudden, intense anxiety and fear, it might be the symptoms of a panic attack. The NHS website has a full list of anxiety symptoms and UK charity Mind have a comprehensive resource on panic attacks

Anxiety and suicidal thoughts

Pre-pandemic research in 2010 showed that unmanaged anxiety can lead to depression and anxiety disorders, which increases the risk of suicide (3). It showed that over 70% of people with reported suicide attempts also had depression or anxiety disorders.

We know that it has been, and continues to be, a challenging time for many people following the pandemic. With this and the cost-of-living crisis there is also a significant increase in risk factors for having suicidal thoughts including joblessness, long term health issues, agoraphobia, isolation and financial issues and more (4).

What can you do if you are experiencing anxiety?

Mental health problems have just as big an impact as physical health issues, so taking steps to protect and take care of yourself is important.

If you think you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, you should make an appointment to see your GP to discuss and consider the different types of support available to you.

There are also lots of practical ways you can try to reduce feelings of anxiety:

  • Talk to friends, family, colleagues or health professionals
  • Exercise such as running, walking, swimming and yoga can help you relax
  • Find help with improving your sleep
  • Eat a healthy diet to keep your energy levels stable
  • Reduce the amount of technology you use, particularly before going to sleep
  • Consider peer support where people use their experiences to help one another
  • Use mindfulness techniques such as grounding and breathing exercises – you will find examples during MHAW on our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, or you can check the permanent resources in the Stay Alive app.

Using mindfulness techniques can have incredible benefits in helping acknowledge and address anxiety. These methods can help reduce the risk of developing an anxiety disorder and suicidal thoughts and are simple enough that they can be shared widely and easily. Mindfulness helps whole communities open up about anxiety, practice self-care and bring down overall risks of depression and suicide.

It’s important to remember everyone has unique thoughts, feelings and experiences. This means some techniques that work for you may not work for others, and vice versa. The important thing is to try different methods over a period of time; slow down and reflect on whether they are helping you or not.

You might not see radical change immediately and are more likely to experience small improvements over a longer period. Acknowledging small improvements will help you move forward. Always remember to seek help and support whenever you feel you need it.

What if I’m experiencing anxiety and suicidal thoughts?

Many of us – one in five – suffer from suicidal thoughts. Research shows that these thoughts can be interrupted and suicide can be prevented. Lots of different areas of life can contribute to the possibility of suicidal thoughts, like personal factors, relationships, community factors and wider societal aspects. 

  • If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or are supporting someone else, you can download our FREE Stay Alive app which can direct you to crisis support nationally and in your local area  
  • You can watch our FREE Real Talk interactive film where you can learn how to have a lifesaving conversation 
  • You can also find more resources on the signs of suicide and how to support yourself and someone else in our Suicide Prevention Hub

If you want to expand your knowledge around suicide, warning signs, starting conversations and advocating for those in need, you may be interested in the Mental Health First Aid course. We discuss signs of mental health struggles, how to talk about it and where to send people for more help and advice. 

If you are struggling with anxiety, you can find more about treatment and care for anxiety disorders at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE): 

If you are struggling with any mental health or other problem, you can call Samaritans on 116 123

Links and research:

Did you know 1 in 5 people will have suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives?

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