Anxiety is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 (15-21 May). Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and mental health charity, Mary Frances Trust, have joined forces to increase understanding of the condition and highlight the support available.

Below Dr Anna Gosling, Clinical Psychologist, at Surrey and Borders Partnership and Emily Friend, Assistant Psychologist at the Trust, give us more insight into what anxiety really is and how to know if it is getting out of control.

What is anxiety?

We all recognise the feeling – our palms get hot and sweaty, we might notice our breathing quickens, our heart feels like it’s pounding in our chest, perhaps we notice that fluttering in our stomach, often known as ‘butterflies’ - it’s the normal reaction our body has to something it thinks is a threat. Words we use to describe the emotions associated with that reaction might be fear, panic, dread, scared, frightened, anxious and so on.

I’m sure many of us can recognise the fight/flight (and often freeze) response which we share with many of the other (non-human) inhabitants of our planet. It has been passed down through evolution and has helped to protect us from ‘harm’ – whether that be a marauding lion or the threat of raiders from another tribe. Our body gets ready to run, fight or freeze and in doing so releases hormones that send vital blood away from our internal organs (our digestive system) towards areas it would be most needed, such as our arms and legs. All those physical reactions help us to get ready to run away or fight our threat.

It’s the very same response that ensures we jump quickly out of the way of a bus that suddenly appears in the road. So even though many of the ‘threats’ in our modern world are different, it can still be a useful response in certain situations.

However, when that response is triggered by a more ‘modern threat’, we might not need the surge of energy sent to our arms and legs in order to run away – so we are left with a set of physical responses that we often feel are uncomfortable or distressing. It is unlikely that we are going to need to run or fight when heading into a job interview or making an important but difficult phone call, but those physical responses are still likely to be triggered.  

In our world today – we might consider a number of things to be ‘threats’ – stressful situations such as worrying about money, difficulties in our relationships with loved ones, losing your job, might all be considered threats and can trigger the same set of physical responses. This is perfectly normal, not very pleasant but for most of us it will pass once the stressful situation is over.

The difference between feeling anxious and anxiety

We all feel anxious from time to time, but not all of us will suffer from ‘anxiety’.  Anxiety is the label we use to describe persistent worries that don’t go away even in the absence of the ‘threat’ or stressful experience. Again, sometimes we might notice our worries remain, even after whatever was worrying us has passed – but if that worry persists for a longer time, if it starts affecting our life, either by influencing how we spend our time, whether we are able to see people we love or do the things that are important to us then it can become a problem.

How do I know if it’s a problem?

There are lots of ways that anxiety can begin to impact on how we live our lives. For example, it might be that going shopping at busy times of the year (like the weekend before Christmas) feels uncomfortable to you, the thought of it (the threat) means that you begin to experience some of those physical symptoms we were describing above (feeling sick, heart pounding etc) – so you decide not to go shopping and those uncomfortable feelings go away. This is a perfectly understandable way of dealing with a feeling or experience that we don’t like – however, we might begin to think it is becoming a problem if it leads you to feel uncomfortable at the thought of going shopping at any time of the year, or it begins to ‘spread’ to other situations where there are lots of people and so stops you from doing things you really enjoy or spending time with people you would like to.

Some people find that if they act in a certain way, then the anxiety goes away – so they keep doing it. For example, the threat might be the thought ‘I haven’t locked the front door’ – this makes me feel anxious, then if I check the door is locked then the anxious feelings go away. Again, this makes sense and is understandable, but if that behaviour gets out of hand and leads to lots of time spent checking, then it can begin to impact your life and that of the people around you.

If you recognise this type of behaviour and have experienced similar thoughts and feelings then your anxiety may be getting out of hand and you might want to seek support. This is likely to feel daunting at first, but if left untreated, anxiety can lead to other mental health conditions like depression and may also cause trouble sleeping, headaches, digestive or bowel problems and social isolation.

How do I get support?

If you feel your anxiety is long-lasting and stopping you from leading a normal life, it’s important that you seek support early to stop it from spiralling into a more serious issue. You can speak to your GP, or you can refer yourself to Mind Matters Surrey, which provides free, confidential talking therapies to people aged 17+ registered with a Surrey GP. The service offers individual therapies, guided self-help online and group courses.

You may also want to access free community-based support though mental health charities like Mary Frances Trust which offers peer support groups, physical activities (yoga, Zumba and others), arts and craft classes and self-help workshops (wellbeing courses, mindfulness classes etc) all aimed at improving mental and emotional wellbeing and breaking social isolation.

You can also enrol at Surrey and Borders Partnership’s Recovery College where you will be able to attend courses to learn how to improve your health and wellbeing. Courses includes, ‘Understanding Depression and Anxiety’, ‘Discovering self-compassion’ and ‘Healthy sleep habits’. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental distress and is in need of immediate support, Surrey and Borders Partnership’s Mental Health crisis helpline is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. Calls are free of charge on 0800 915 4644.  You can also visit one of the Trust’s Safe Havens. These are open from 6pm to 11pm, every evening of the year. There are based in Aldershot, Epsom, Guildford, Redhill and Woking. They also operate virtually, offering the same support online for those who cannot attend in person. No need to book an appointment, these are drop-in services.