The difference between good and bad anxiety (Mental Health Awareness Week)

Online news, Wales news
18 May 2023

Dr Isabella Jurewicz, Chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Wales writes for Mental Health Awareness Week:

This year’s theme is anxiety – which is very apt given we all experience it. Most people don’t know that a little bit of anxiety can actually be a good thing. It’s a human emotion that we need to help us survive. Indeed around 2.5m years ago our ancestors, the cavemen, used it to find food or fight of predators.

Nowadays we tend to have anxiety during big life events when we need that push or rush of adrenaline for say, a job interview or going through a relationship break-up. When experiencing anxiety, you may feel like your palms are sweaty and you can hear your heart rate go faster. But this is no cause for alarm. It’s a healthy part of our nervous system and is exactly the medicine we need to bring about stability when we’re stressed out.

However, sometimes anxious feelings may become unmanageable with worry overtaking someone’s ability to lead a normal life. This in turn can put a strain on relationships and people may start to struggle at school or hold down a job.

As a psychiatrist who works with patients with eating disorders, it is not surprising that I come across this type of chronic anxiety almost daily. This is because anxiety and eating disorders go hand in hand. It can be a common driver for vomiting in anorexia or laxative use in bulimia. Of course, an eating disorder can lead to anxiety about self-image and gaining weight but likewise, it is often an anxiety disorder that triggers or maintains the condition. With anxiety in the mix, those who have an eating disorder turn towards limiting food, food rituals, laxative use and over exercise to try and take back control of their life. And these behaviours may be seen as a way of lowering their anxiety or giving them more control back. But these unhealthy and dangerous decisions can have a really bad effect or even have longer-term consequences as eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health conditions.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that there are good treatments out there for people with eating disorders and chronic anxiety and there are people like psychiatrists who can help someone recover and lead a fulfilling life. 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 in Wales that can help including Mind Cymru, Mental Health Matters Wales and the Samaritans.

If you care for someone with an eating disorder or other mental illness – you should look after your own mind too. Organisations such as BEAT – who are an eating disorder charity - can help those experiencing these difficulties and their loved ones.

The golden rule to remember that in everyday life a little anxiety is a good thing and we’d be lost without it. But so long as it doesn’t go too far and start interfering in your ability to lead a normal life. And if does start to take over in a bad way, then it’s time to speak to your GP or other medical professional about it. There are people out there – like psychiatrists – who are trained to help you get treatment you deserve and begin the road to recovery.

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