• Robyn Taaffe

Understanding Anxiety with Joe O'Brien from @headfirst0

Introduction to anxiety

In modern society, everyone we meet seems to be permanently busy, and in turn many seem to say they are permanently stressed! We’re seeing more and more cases of anxiety present themselves than ever before and, as a consequence, we have seen the related misunderstanding and confusion around what anxiety is.

But what is anxiety?

Some people will have an idea of what it feels like, however, many misunderstand it. It is the excessive feeling of worry/fear when it is disproportionate to the situation. So, with anxiety you might experience symptoms like shaking, nausea, and you might start ruminating over the worst case scenarios about the situation. For example, if these symptoms occurred in relation to a party, you would imagine this response is disproportionate to the situation, as there generally isn’t anything at a party that requires that level of worry (you would hope!). Often people with anxiety even know that this feeling is not rational, however that does little to aid the symptoms, and sometimes can make them feel worse.

This disproportionate response is part of the evolutionary fight or flight response, which is the body preparing to deal with a “threat” or danger. Now, in ancient times, the racing heart, the intense focus and the muscle tension (amongst other reactions), were built to help deal with hunting a wild animal or fleeing a dangerous animal! However, in modern society, this reaction isn’t quite as useful. In fact, anxiety can be downright debilitating for some, preventing them from engaging in the things they want to do – social occasions, work events, presentations, public speaking, driving and the list goes on. Anxiety can be in any one domain for people, or in every aspect of their lives, depending on the type. There are different types of anxiety, namely generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder and specific phobias. It also looks different depending on the individual, and the cause or trigger of anxiety can vary. There are a list of symptoms that are common within most domains of anxiety:

· Racing thoughts and overthinking, with the inability to turn them off

· Excessive or irrational worry/fear

· Restlessness & accompanying fatigue (this is due to the sheer energy it takes to produce the body’s physiological response)

· Sleep disturbance

· Muscle tension

· Ruminating (focusing on the negative aspect of every situation, past and present)

· Panic attacks

· Nausea

What we see a lot of nowadays, is that people will say they have anxiety because of relating to some of these symptoms. It’s very important to understand that having an anxiety disorder, and having the feeling of stress, are different. That’s not to say they are not related, as stressful events can trigger anxiety, but they are different.

For example, some people might feel that feeling of tension and worry for an exam or an interview, or when having to talk to new people at a social event. However, this may not necessarily be anxiety. I would say that the feeling of tension or nerves before an interview or a relatively stressful similar event is normal, but it isn’t disproportionate as I mentioned earlier. It’s when the tension and stressful feeling is accompanied by overthinking, racing thoughts, disturbed sleep and the other symptoms, causing it to be disproportionate to the situation.

For example, waking up 2 hours early on the morning of a big interview with nerves might be considered normal. Where as, not sleeping the previous two nights, and experiencing sweating, racing heart and overthinking to the point you can’t focus on anything else – this is disproportionate. So, the main message is this - we are built to have a stress response to some things and that response is normal. Although stress and anxiety are linked, anxiety is a different response than simply feeling stressed, and has a host of knock on effects.

In order to know when anxiety is an issue, there are a number of things we can look for, to recognise when we might need some support in dealing with anxiety. Some of the things we should look for are:

i) If it is impacting our day to day lives and our ability to function; this can come in the form of avoiding situations we ordinarily would like to engage in or prevent us doing things we could normally do.

ii) If it’s impacting our mental or physical health; we may feel low in mood because of the knock-on impact of anxiety on our lives or feel like the thoughts related to anxiety overwhelming.

iii) If anxiety is impacting our personal relationships.

vi) If anxiety is impacting our ability to perform at work, school, or day to day life etc.

If you tick one or all of these boxes, in relation to anxiety or any other mental health issue, you should ask your GP or a mental health professional about the best method of addressing it. There is a common theme of people trying to fix mental health issues themselves, before seeking help. However, when we compare it to other health issues, it seems outrageous that we don’t immediately go to a GP or mental health professional!

Imagine getting a debilitating toothache, so bad it impacts your ability to work, impacts your mood, your relationship and impacts your social life. And instead of going to the dentist, you say “I’m going to brush more often, brushing is good for your teeth”. Or if you break your arm, and you say “I’m going to give this a chance to heal or get better before going to the hospital”. Seems ridiculous right? It’s the equivalent of struggling with a mental health issue, that has the same impact on your life, and saying to yourself “I’m going to meditate. Meditation is good for your mental health”. The reality is, you don’t know if meditation is the right course of action for your situation, you’re guessing! And, if anxiety is at the point of impacting your life, even in a small way, it’s best not to guess! Maybe the dentist will come back and say “brush more” and maybe a mental health professional will say “you should try meditation” and if so, then great! But at least then you know you’re going in the right direction, with a professional guiding you, and not leading yourself blindly and hoping for the best.

Mental health and physical health are very different, but they should be addressed in the same way; we need to stop minimizing their need for treatment, and get the appropriate help, when we need it. Mental health issues are manageable and treatable, but not without the right help and guidance. There isn’t a “too soon” to see a professional, but there is a “there can be a too late”.


My name is Joe O Brien, I have a BSc and MSc in Psychology. I currently work in corporate mental health, based in Dublin. I also have experience working in a clinical setting with young people in Ireland and the UK. For more information on anxiety and mental health more generally feel free to get in touch. You can reach me through my Instagram - @headfirst0

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