It's estimated about 26% of Australians will suffer from an anxiety disorder at least once in their lives, with about 14% in any one year.
Yet less than half of those with anxiety seek the help of a health professional. For those unable or unwilling to consult a health professional, the good news is that there are useful self-help treatments and strategies shown to be beneficial for many people.
Here, we cover:
What are anxiety disorders and who gets them?
Everyone has fears, and it’s normal to worry about things. These are survival strategies and can help us prevent, take on or overcome life’s adversities. But when those fears or worries become overwhelming, there may be an underlying anxiety disorder. Warning signs include worry or fear:
- that’s too intense, happens too often or takes up a lot of time relative to the realistic likelihood or importance of the event;
- is difficult to dismiss; and
- prevents you working, socialising, sleeping or taking part in normal activities like travel, shopping or going out in public.
There are several different anxiety disorders, with some overlap among them, and some people may have more than one diagnosis. The main types are:
• General anxiety disorder
(GAD) is excessive, long-lasting anxiety about everyday matters, such as health, family, money or work. It’s often accompanied by other symptoms, such as inability to sleep, lack of concentration, muscle tension and irritability.
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) is anxiety that results from a traumatic experience, such as war, a natural disaster, violence or a serious accident. People experience dreams and flashbacks to the trauma, anger, depression and avoidance of certain situations.
• Panic disorder
is when panic attacks – characterised by intense worry or fear that comes on suddenly and develops quickly – become frequent, and/or the person fears having a panic attack and this affects their behaviour or causes more worry.
is often related to panic disorder, and results in people avoiding places or situations because they’re worried about being embarrassed or unable to escape if they have a panic attack.
• Social phobia
(also called social anxiety disorder) is an intense fear of humiliation, scrutiny or embarrassment in social situations, and is manifested in sweating, blushing and an inability to speak, and may lead to panic attacks. In severe cases it can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
• Specific phobias
relate to a fear of specific objects or situations, such as dogs, balloons, injections, flying or enclosed spaces.
• Obsessive compulsive disorder
(OCD) refers to obsessive thoughts and ruminations, with behaviours carried out to reduce the anxiety. Examples include a fear of contamination, resulting in repetitive handwashing or a fear of some disaster occurring unless the door knob is touched a certain number of times when leaving the house. It’s not as common as the other anxiety disorders, but can have a major impact on your life.
Anxiety and depression
Anxiety is also commonly associated with depression, especially among elderly people, and there’s a high likelihood that someone with anxiety will develop major depression within a year. People with both depression and anxiety have a higher severity of illness, and significantly greater impairment in functioning at work, psychosocial functioning, and quality of life than patients not suffering from this combination of disorders.
Your first port of call is your GP, who can provide a diagnosis, assess your needs, review medication that may be causing anxiety, prescribe medication if appropriate, create a mental health care plan, and refer you to a specialist if necessary. The doctor should also address underlying physical health problems that may be causing anxiety, such as heart disease, cancer or thyroid problems.
Under the federal government’s Better Access initiative, you’re entitled to Medicare rebates for 10 individual and/or 10 group sessions per calendar year with a psychologist, or with an occupational therapist or social worker who’s had appropriate training in mental health services. The approach typically involves short-term cognitive behavioural therapy, stress management or interpersonal therapy.
Someone with more severe or ongoing illness or people with more complex or intensive care needs may be referred to Medicare-subsidised consultant psychiatrist services or state/territory specialised mental health services, especially if affordability is an issue.
Before embarking on any sort of therapy or treatment, the beliefs and wishes of the person should be taken into account. If someone has little faith in a particular type of therapy, for example doesn’t like talking to other people about their problems, or doesn’t want to take medication, he or she is unlikely to stick with it.