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Unless you’re a Buddhist monk living on a mountain top removed from the challenging imperfections of life, it’s likely that you’ve experienced anxiety at some point during your time on Earth. Whether it’s an interview for a new job, going on a date, or performing the dreaded art of public speaking (widely regarded as the most common of all fears), it’s not uncommon to feel nervous or anxious from time to time.
But people who suffer from either anxiety or a panic disorder experience these sensations much more frequently, and much more intensely. And unfortunately, it’s much more common than we may want to admit.
According to the mental health charity Mind, 5.9% of the population in England (just over 3 million people) suffer from a generalised anxiety disorder that can often have a profoundly upsetting impact on day-to-day life. Those living with the condition can often experience a real sense of danger or feel as if they’re constantly being watched and judged by their every action. And a collection of recent reports suggests that anxiety and unhappiness, particularly among young people, is unfortunately growing.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is actually a very normal response to stress or danger, often called the ‘flight or fight’ response. From an evolutionary perspective, it was this very mechanism that helped our ancient ancestors to stay alive. When faced with an imminent threat, adrenaline is quickly pumped through the body, our digestion shuts down and blood is diverted to our muscles – essentially all the things we need to run away, or fight.
The problems arise when this response is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation (like an email from work at 9:00 pm) or indeed when we experience these sensations from a “perceived” danger. The human mind can be a beautiful thing, but it can also conjure a variety of “worse case scenario’s”, ensuring we worry about things that have not, and may not happen.
These responses are instinctive, and not the result of any rational or conscious thought, but regardless the feelings are very, very real. People suffering from anxiety disorders can experience nausea, a lack of energy, breathlessness, shaking, sweaty palms, insomnia and irritability; and those suffering from panic attacks can experience a fog that clouds rationality, leaving them oversensitive, physically exhausted and often low in confidence.
Over recent years there have been signs that the number of people suffering from anxiety is on the rise, particularly among girls and young women. Statistics from the NSPCC revealed that there has been a rise of 35% in Child Line counselling sessions relating to anxiety when compared with the previous year.
Among Generation Y – people born between 1980 and 2000 – anxiety has also become more prevalent, and according to the British charity YouthNet, a third of young women are suffering from panic attacks.
Why is anxiety on the rise?
The obvious question is what’s behind this increase? It’s a complicated question to answer, but one theory is that while we’re all connected digitally, we are less connected to each other. We spend much of our daily life looking at screens, laptops and mobile devices, and the end result is that society is less communal and collaborative when compared with life a few hundred years ago.
There’s also a pervading sense that life today is like a draining full-time job. We have to contend with the daily commute, stressful jobs, long hours and raising a family, all while trying to maintain our social obligations. For Generation Y there’s school, exams, and trying to fit in, and the added pressure of managing a social media identity where our every action is documented online for hours, days, or even longer.
It’s fair to say that the motivation behind all of this is that we simply want to be accepted and liked. Being excluded from a group, whether that’s at work, school or socially can often be a real terror for many people today. Millennials may call it FOMO (fear of missing out), but regardless of the acronym you would like to use, this breakdown of traditional communal structures ensure that we often lack the key mechanisms that were designed to protect ourselves from emotional hardship – namely each other.
And it’s a key point, anxiety disorders are more complex than just medical problems, and often the illness can have its roots in social issues, becoming increasingly common as we experience changes in our lifestyles and the challenges of living in the modern world.
The question is how we address the problem and support the people who need it most. The answer will almost certainly be, ‘it depends’. It will depend on the individual and what’s best for them, and there’s a wealth of medical advice, psychologists, meditation, yoga and social groups that can all play a role in helping people to manage or overcome their anxiety.
The good news however, is that while anxiety may be more prevalent, we are constantly coming up with new ways to combat it. The important thing is to seek help and support when you need it, and for all of us to address the social conditions behind it, and think of solutions that look at the cause of the problem, and not just the symptoms.
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