Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sydney Morning Herald: Anxiety can drain your spirit during troubled times

Greg Barns
November 6, 2008

Over the past decade the lid has been lifted on depression. Organisations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute, among others, have shone a light on those feelings of darkness and despair that invade so many lives and which impair them. But depression is not simply about feeling blue. It can be linked to anxiety. People who seem upbeat each day might be physically and mentally drained inside by the relentless drumbeat of gloom and fear about themselves and their sense of security.

If you ask the average person to describe the symptoms of depression, unless they have acute medical knowledge themselves, they will generally use phrases such as "feeling sad" or "feeling low". Perhaps it is because the word "depression" conjures these feelings and perceptions.

A British Medical Journal survey in 1996 confirmed that the perception in the community is that depression is mainly about feelings of sadness or a lack of energy. Among survey participants, the reported noted, "when the discussion moved on to depression itself, most mentioned the symptoms of weepiness, irritability, feeling low, inability to cope, and loss of appetite".

The anxiety sufferer can often be labelled as "stressed out" or a "constant worrier" by colleagues and friends whereas the person who is gloomy, teary and lacks energy can be more readily understood as a person suffering from depression.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported last month that one in five Australians in 2007 suffered mental illness and of those 14 per cent suffered some form of anxiety disorder or frequent panic attacks. Yet according to research released in 2006 by drug company Pfizer and the Anxiety Disorders Alliance, 61 per cent of Australians have little or no knowledge about anxiety disorders.

Perhaps this is because some anxiety, and even panic, can be useful to all of us. If we are threatened by an intruder in our homes, then the anxiety we feel can enable us to react quickly to protect ourselves. And anxiety about exams or a presentation we have to undertake in front of our peers in the workplace can also be useful in enhancing our performance.

But if we spend some time each day for a period of weeks, months or even years regularly worrying about things, or have a general sense of unease, then the anxiety has become a disorder.

And while anxiety disorders can include everything from panic and phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder, the common garden variety manifestation of this illness is generalised anxiety disorder or GAD. The inherent difficulty with GAD is that it is hard to diagnose and for individuals to recognise they have it, and for others to understand what it entails.

As one English GAD sufferer, Jane Phillimore, put it in 2001, "what's remarkable about GAD is that, unlike post-traumatic stress disorder or phobias where the symptoms and focus of anxiety are easily recognised, it is hard to define. Sufferers worry about anything and possibly everything. This makes it sound like nothing more than an extension of the everyday worry all human beings experience. And GAD may start there.

"But it can escalate into a disabling disorder in which outwardly ordinary, normally successful people are crippled by inner lives of intense distress," Phillimore wrote in The Observer on October 14, 2001.

So how do we recognise the GAD sufferer? Let me answer that as someone who has regular bouts of anxiety, as well as feeling blue. The person who regularly, if not on a daily basis, fears that things are out their control, has a sense of unease about their life, fears a catastrophic event is about to befall them, and who worries endlessly about things said to them or about them by others when there is no rational basis for their doing so - this is probably an individual who is suffering from GAD.

An acute attack of GAD is emotionally and physically destabilising and exhausting. When someone worries about doom and gloom being just around the corner day-in and day-out over a lengthy period, this leads to feeling constantly tired and rundown physically, and it can mean being inattentive and distracted when with you are with other people, even individuals to whom you are emotionally close.

Perhaps those in government and in health groups such as Beyond Blue need to focus their awareness campaigns on highlighting that GAD is a serious mental illness that affects millions.

For individuals pre-disposed towards anxiety, it is in troubled and uncertain times like these that this can turn into a full-blown illness. We need help as a community to recognise the symptoms.

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