As people navigate life through the Covid-19 pandemic, it is normal to experience feelings of anxiety or worry from time to time. But for some, these feelings can be ongoing and debilitating.
Sindisiwe Mlotshwa, a counselling psychologist at Akeso private psychiatric centres, says anxiety typically consists of physical, emotional and mental reactions. In moderation, these reactions are normal and even helpful when appropriate for the situation. “In small doses, anxiety can help protect us from danger and help focus our attention when tasks need to be completed. However, when these reactions occur too frequently and are more severe, they can begin to affect our work performance, relationships and quality of life,” Mlotshwa says.
“For example, if a person has anxiety about driving in traffic, this may be helpful if it promotes more cautious driving behaviour. If anxiety is making you so cautious that you are a danger to other drivers by driving too slow, fast or indecisively, for instance, or if you avoid driving at all, then the anxiety has become a problem.”
The presence of an unmanageable or uncontrollable feeling of worry, which changes behaviour and quality of life, could be the sign of an anxiety disorder. Other signs include:
. Excessive nervousness;
. sleep problems;
. muscle tension;
. poor concentration;
. increased heart rate;
. upset stomach; and
. avoidance of situations that may cause fear or the fear itself.
When these signs present themselves and manifest behaviour changes, it is time to seek professional help, Mlotshwa says.
She adds there are multiple types of anxiety disorders, including social anxieties or social phobia, separation anxieties and panic attacks. “There are various ways of treating and navigating anxiety, which may be useful either on their own or in combination.”
Psychiatrists recommend exercise to treat anxiety, or to complement medication, “as it promotes the healthy production of serotonin and endorphins to help regulate anxious feelings”. These natural “happy hormones” make people feel happier, calmer and can help to manage symptoms.
Relaxation and meditation can also help to manage symptoms. “These include practices such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindful sensory engagements. Through focusing on external and physical experiences or senses, we can help the person to step out of their internal emotional experiences,” Mlotshwa explains.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the techniques psychologists most frequently use when treating anxiety disorders.
“Through CBT, unhealthy thinking patterns that elevate anxiety levels are identified and challenged. Often, CBT will also include elements of exposure therapy and relaxation techniques.”
Exposure therapy – which should only be undertaken with a trained professional – involves slow and gradual exposure to whatever is triggering the client’s anxiety, with the aim of diminishing their distress.
And finally, anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed. “Anxiety disorders can be devastating, but the good news is that help is available. It is possible to overcome anxiety and reclaim your life,” Mlotshwa concludes.