...with Charlotte Watson 10 May 2014

Mental Health Awareness Week 2014 - anxiety and eating disorders

This year, the Mental Health Foundation has chosen anxiety as the theme of its Mental Health Awareness Week 2014, which runs from 12-18 May.

It is hoped this week will inform and highlight issues concerning anxiety in a mental health context, whilst raising awareness of mental health and its effects more widely.

Anxiety is an adaptive response that allows us to react to our environment. It was useful in our evolutionary past when running away from predators and can be useful today in increasing our alertness in potentially dangerous situations. However, sometimes these feelings can become overwhelming, which is when their influence may be more negative than positive. Anyone can experience negative anxiety but past experiences, everyday life and habits may have an impact on its effects.

In the very short term, high anxiety may lead to a panic attack where, most prominently, there are difficulties breathing and a sense of being out of control. These attacks can be triggered or come on at random during the day or night. Overall, anxiety in the short term can produce muscular tension, rising blood pressure and ‘butterflies’ in your stomach among other things.

However, in the long term, fear coupled with tension and lack of sleep may weaken resistance to infection, digestive problems may occur and feelings of depression may arise. These feelings of depression may not stem from the anxiety itself but from its consequences. It can have impacts socially and professionally, as high anxiety may make it difficult to form or maintain relationships or to cope with the pressures of working life. This experience is often similar for sufferers of eating disorders who may experience anxiety in such a way, as well as in triggering situations or when triggering thoughts occur, related to the disorder.

Anxiety and its consequences can thus be detrimental to all aspects of life, so it is important to bring anxiety to a manageable level. There are many techniques to self-manage anxiety with breathing and relaxation exercises being particularly helpful to reduce symptoms. Other activities such as yoga, meditation, massage or listening to relaxation music can also be useful in self-managing anxiety. These self-management techniques are often helpful with the support of a therapy or intervention.

The therapy recommended for anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which encourages new ways of thinking about anxiety whilst developing management strategies tailored to an individual; it is hoped a feeling of control can be built up in relation to anxiety. Assertiveness training may also produce this sense of empowerment by learning how to handle difficult situations that may be anxiety provoking. Physiological interventions may take the form of medication, which your GP can advise on, as well as therapeutic interventions and self-help techniques.

However, thinking about anxiety management and treatment can in itself be anxiety-provoking. It is important to seek support if you feel able or if not, perhaps think about asking a loved one to help you. Family and friends can often be a good starting point in managing anxiety; however, booking an appointment with your GP to discuss things may be useful as well. See the links on the right for more information about anxiety and where to seek help and support, as well as our blog post "Getting help if you have an eating problem".