Why a little bit of anxiety is normal and when it can become dangerous to your health (Mental Health Awareness Week)

Northern Ireland news, Online news
19 May 2023

Dr David Coyle, consultant psychiatrist in eating disorders at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland writes for Mental Health Awareness Week:

Anxiety is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week and it’s also something I see daily in my job as a psychiatrist. The truth is we all need a little bit of anxiety to live a normal and fulfilling life. We occasionally need to be afraid to recognise and respond to threats – something that our ancestors the cavemen had to get to grips with.

When you experience this type of anxiety you may feel your heart racing, hands shaking, you may be sweaty or have the urge to run away. It induces us to a void in our stomach, bowels and bladder. It sharpens our concentration and sends thoughts into overdrive – so we either fight off the danger or try to escape it.

But these symptoms are no cause for alarm and are perfectly normal. Anxiety is biological but our minds are sense-making organs. When we encounter a situation, we cannot fix or change, our mind becomes creative in the narrative it provides to help explain the anxiety.

Take the man who has spent the morning reading the news on his phone. He’s been bombarded with stories about impending nuclear apocalypse or the failing NHS. His body responds by sensing the danger and spooling him up for action.

A random thought comes into his mind, a comment he made the day before to a friend that he now worries could be seen as offensive. He texts the friend to apologise. No reply. He tries to ring the friend. No answer. He panics – escalating to thinking they have fallen out.

He can think of nothing else and eventually gets into the car to drive to the coffee shop where his friend works, sweating profusely. The friend smiles as he walks through the door: “Oh! How lovely to see you!”

This mismanagement of anxiety happens a lot as we’re not good at articulating these feelings. Instead, anxiety and depression have become well-known terms that are often misused.

But when it comes to eating disorders which I specialise in – anxiety can become dangerous. For some of my patients it can manifest itself in avoiding food with starvation while for others, feelings are suppressed and must be gotten rid of by any means possible – hence the vomiting. Some feel anxious because of the meal in front of them while others look in the mirror and see fat.

The logical, healthy part of a person’s mind can appreciate these thoughts make no sense, but the feelings attached to them are very much real and can seem unbearable. But all is not lost because even though eating disorders are a severe mental health condition - there are successful treatments to aid long-term recovery.

If your anxiety takes over your life in a bad way or you’re worried that you have an eating disorder, then it’s time to speak to your GP or other medical professionals about it. There are charities that can help including MindWise, Aware NI, Action Mental Health and Samaritans.

It’s also worth noting that if you care for someone with an eating disorder or other mental illness – you should look after your own mind too. Local charities such as EDANI can be a godsend for those experiencing these difficulties and their loved ones.

Above all there are people out there – like psychiatrists – who are trained to help you get treatment and start to recover whether you’re dealing with an eating disorder or another serious mental health condition. The best thing to do is talk to others, seek support and banish that bad anxiety for good.

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