Short of breath? Have trouble sleeping and feel uneasy? You could have an anxiety disorder

We all have anxiety in our lives but when it interferes with your ability to lead a normal life it becomes a disorder, writes psychologist Leticia Gavin.

WE HAVE ALL dealt with anxiety throughout our lives. For the most part it’s short lived and we can deal with it in our own time.

However anxiety can become a problem that can severely limit and disrupt our everyday lives.

Anxiety is a feeling of doom, unease, or apprehensiveness when no danger is imminently present. It can produce the same stress responses as fear, i.e. muscle tension, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath to name a few. These bodily changes occur due to an inborn fight-or-flight stress response that is believed to be necessary for our survival.

So when does anxiety starts to affect our lives?

When anxiety causes such distress, that it interferes with a person’s ability to lead a normal life then it becomes an Anxiety Disorder. The most common anxiety disorders are:

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated.

This leads to avoidance of social or performance situations such as public speaking as well as subtle forms of hiding away in social gatherings.

Panic Disorder (Panic Attacks)

People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

People with GAD suffer from uncontrolled worrying. They feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. Symptoms can include distress, irritability, difficulty concentrating and sleeplessness.

GAD is a long-term condition which causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.


As with most conditions that affect mental health, the exact cause of anxiety disorders is not fully understood. Researchers believe they are the result of a combination of genetics (the genes we inherit from our parents) and life stress, triggering a vicious cycle.

Throughout our lives we encounter traumas that are stored in our minds along with the associated fear response. When our minds associate normal everyday situations with these fear responses it can produce anxiety for the wrong reasons.

For example if an adult was bullied as a child, they may experience social anxiety because their mind associates social interaction with the fear they experienced as a child.

What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms include:

 Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness

 Problems sleeping

 Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet

 Shortness of breath

 Heart palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats)

 An inability to be still and calm

 Dry mouth

 Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet

 Nausea

 Muscle tension

 Dizziness

Tips to help you cope with anxiety

  • Talk about how you feel.
  • Talk to someone you trust such as your partner, a family member, a friend or neighbour. People will listen and give you support if you let them know how you’re feeling. Talking will reduce stress and give you a different perspective.
  • Take time to breathe
  • Take smooth, slow, and regular breaths. Sitting upright is usually better than lying down or slouching, because it can increase the capacity of your lungs to fill with air. Concentrate only on breathing in and out, beginning and ending, breath to breath, moment to moment.

Positive Self-talk

Practice self-talk phrases such as:

This feeling will pass.I will get through this.I am safe right now.

I am feeling anxious now, but I have the power to make myself calm.

I can feel my heart rate slowing down.


Diet can have a big impact on your anxiety. The foods that are most associated with increasing anxiety are ones containing caffeine and alcohol.

Take time to unwind

It might be going for walk, watching T.V., tea with friends, listening to music, yoga or reading. Find something you enjoy and allows you to switch off.


Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, will help you to combat stress and release tension. It increases the activity level of dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine acts to reinforce behaviours that make you feel good, while serotonin is important for calmness and emotional well-being.


Studies have found that counselling and psychotherapy is the most effective form of treatment for anxiety disorders.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is considered the most effective form of counselling for anxiety disorders. Generally a short-term treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy focuses on teaching you specific skills to gradually return you to the activities you’ve avoided because of anxiety. Through this process, your symptoms improve as you build on your initial success.

Where to find a counsellor or therapist?

A good place to start is the accreditation bodies responsible for maintaining the professional standards.

 The Psychological Society of Ireland

 Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy

 Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy

Leticia Gavin is a psychologist with Insight Matters. She is fully accredited by the HSE. I’m also a registered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland. She is fully accredited by the HSE. Leticia is a Senior Therapist at  Insight Matters, Clinical Director of DCCPP and a Registered Member of the Psychological Society of Ireland. Anyone who feels they may be suffering from anxiety should contact their local GP. You can follow Insight Matters on Twitter here

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