Anxiety’s grip on the mind: Breaking free from negative thoughts

By Esther Muhozi
On 19 September 2023 at 07:45

Ever wondered why you were trembling before your exam, or why your palms got sweaty before that job interview? These anxious feelings are a natural way for the body to prepare itself for an important event. You would have also noticed how you started to calm down once the event was under your way; you started to breathe easier and your heart stopped thumping. Such anxiety actually helps us perform better as it makes us more alert.

One may be wondering what anxiety is, let’s dive into it. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, and have a rapid heartbeat. It can be a normal reaction to stress. For example, you might feel anxious when faced with a difficult problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. It can help you to cope. The anxiety may give you a boost of energy or help you focus. But for people with anxiety disorders, the fear is not temporary and can be overwhelming.

However, some people experience anxiety or anxiety attacks for no apparent reason. If you find it hard to control your worries and if these constant feelings of anxiety affect your ability to go about your daily activities, then it might be a case of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety, panic and depression can be very debilitating. They drain our energy and make it more difficult to get on with life and do the things we need to. When severe, anxiety and depression can seriously cripple a person’s ability to lead a meaningful life.

What often feeds a sense of anxiety is a feeling of being overwhelmed and not able to handle life. What this boils down to is really a feeling of not being able to handle other people. It is usually the things which other people “might” do or say which make us anxious.

Likewise depression often comes from how we respond to other people’s behavior. Perhaps someone has been rude to us, or said something unkind, or someone we depend on does not seem to like us or approve of us. If we do not know how to manage our feelings about such events then these can build up till we feel hopeless and depression sets in. There is what we call Regular Anxiety and Anxiety Disorder and these two differ in the following way.

Regular anxiety

Worrying about bills, job interviews, tests or other important events. The feeling of ’butterflies in your stomach’ before a public performance or a big meeting. Fear of a dangerous object, place or situation, for instance, a stray dog barking at you on the street.

Sadness or worry immediately after a traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one.
Maintaining hygiene personally and in your surroundings.
Breaking into a sweat before a big match.

Anxiety disorder

  • Worrying constantly and excessively for no apparent reason, making it difficult for you to perform day-to-day activities.
  • Fearing any social or performance-related situations, in which you may be exposed to possible scrutiny by others.
  • You fear that you will act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing.
  • Irrational fear of an object or place, such as fear of entering an elevator believing that an escape might be not possible.
  • Repeated flashbacks, dreams and subsequent worry following exposure to an extremely traumatic event in the past.
  • Performing excessive and repetitive cleaning and rearranging things and objects around you.
  • Repeated panic attacks along with nervous feelings like “I am going to die“ for no apparent reason, and the constant fear of having another attack.

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety, so it is difficult to say when it can be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder. If your feelings of worry and dread have a disabling effect on you over a period of time, you should seek advice from a mental health professional.

There are many types of anxiety disorders but their most common symptoms are:

  • Increased heart rate and heavy breathing
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Tightening sensation in the chest
  • Unsubstantiated and growing worries, and restlessness
  • Obsessing over needless things leading to compulsive behavior

When we look at the causes of anxiety and depression our thinking processes are often part of the problem. Anxiety becomes habitual when we spend too much time having worrying and frightening thoughts. Our body then gets into a very alert and vigilant state.

This means our body is being flooded with these types of hormones, which makes it even more likely that we will think anxious thoughts. By putting our nervous system on ’alert’, we tell our nervous system to look for those things which might go wrong (or are going wrong) and to not look for things that are going right. Our perspective becomes one-sided, and distorted towards the negative, without us even realizing it.

Likewise thoughts of doom and gloom, such as feeling stuck in a situation with no way out or no hope for a better future can also become habitual. Such thoughts cause our body to be flooded with the types of hormones which make us feel sluggish, lacking in energy or enthusiasm and even more likely to have despairing and unhappy thoughts.

The most common factors that cause anxiety disorders are:

Family history: People who have a history of mental health issues in the family may usually have problems with anxiety. For instance, Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be passed down in a family.

Stressful events: Stress at the workplace, loss of a loved one, or troubled relationships, can also trigger symptoms of anxiety.

Health issues: Ailments such as thyroid problems, asthma, diabetes or a heart disease can also cause anxiety. People suffering from depression can also develop symptoms of anxiety disorders.

For instance, someone who has been suffering from depression for a long period, may start to under-perform at work. This can then lead to work-related stress which could trigger anxiety.

Substance use: People who are heavy users of drugs, alcohol and other substances, develop anxiety problems when the effects of the substance begin to wear off (in withdrawal).

Personality factors: Sometimes, people with certain personality traits such as perfectionists or people who like to be in control, develop anxiety-related issues.

Types of anxiety disorders

Anxiety affects people in different ways leading to a variety of disorders. The most common forms of anxiety disorders are:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): People suffering from GAD experience excessive anxiety and worry about various events and situations. They have difficulty in controlling anxiety and worry, along with restlessness and ’feeling keyed up or on edge’ all the time. Such people are not worried about anything in particular and there is no specific trigger.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): People with OCD have constant thoughts and fears that trigger anxiety. They relieve this anxiety by performing certain actions repetitively. For instance, a person with a fear of germs and contamination will repetitively wash his or her hands, and the vessels at home.

Social phobia/Social anxiety disorder: People with social anxiety disorder fear social and performance-related situations where they may be subject to the scrutiny of others. They have an intense fear that something they do or say will lead to their humiliation or embarrassment. These people are unable to handle everyday situations such as making small talk or even eating in public.

Specific phobias Phobias are unsubstantiated fears and people with phobias go to great lengths to avoid the object or situation that triggers their anxiety. Their fears could range from flying in airplanes, being in crowded places, to harmless things such as spiders and high-rise buildings.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Being part of or witnessing an extremely traumatic event such as accidents or an assault can later lead to PTSD. The person will have difficulty sleeping or relaxing due to constant flashbacks of the event.

Panic disorder: People with panic disorder suffer from panic attacks that are uncontrollable and include a range of physical symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath and excessive perspiration. During these episodes, they also report psychological symptoms (thoughts) like experiencing a sense of impending doom and feelings such as ‘I am going to die’ or ‘I will go crazy’. These attacks happen for no apparent reason, and the person then lives in constant fear of suffering another such episode.

Getting treatment for anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders can be overcome but one must not underestimate the seriousness of the problem. If you suffer from any of the above symptoms, it is best you seek professional advice and treatment. Anxiety disorders are treated through anxiety medication, counseling or a combination of the two.

Caring for someone with anxiety disorders

If you have a family member or a friend who is suffering from anxiety disorders, your support can go a long way in reducing their distress. As with any sort of illness, the first thing you should do is to learn about the sufferer’s problem so that you can empathize with their condition.

Dealing with people suffering from anxiety disorders requires a lot of patience, but they also need to be pushed and encouraged from time to time to face their stressors or fears so that they may overcome these fears. It is essential that you find the right balance for this.