When you’re running around all day long doing your best to make your family and friends proud and your bosses happy, the pressure can start to pile up. While it’s pretty common to be a little uptight before exams, presentations or large parties with lots of strangers, nerves can spill over and cause crippling anxiety.
Severe anxiety can cause physical issues like upset stomachs, rashes and palpitations that feel like heart attacks. It can also be a mental torture that has you avoiding people or situations – which can make life very difficult!
If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety, you’re not alone. Mental disorders are becoming more common, with the World Health Organisation noting that anxiety and depression in particular are soaring. An estimated 10% of the world’s population is now affected – an astonishing 615 million people.
“One of the reasons we’re more anxious is that we’re globalising,” clinical psychologist Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon points out. “Technology means we’re having to get things done quicker, and rushing itself fuels anxiety.
“Furthermore, when it comes to achieving and excelling, you need to do even more! This means the pressure and anxiety build even more – and depression sets in when you can’t reach your goals.”
Malaysian mental health practitioners gathered at Sunway University recently for a workshop organised by the Malaysian Society of Clinical Psychology with renowned anxiety researcher Michael Eysenck, Emeritus Professor in Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Professorial Fellow at Roehampton University.
“Uncertainty and unpredictability are two of the most important factors making us anxious,” Prof Eysenck says. “The very rapid and dramatic changes in recent decades have increased uncertainty and unpredictability, and this largely explains why people are increasingly stressed out.”
“There are all kinds of stressors affecting us in Malaysia,” observes Dr Mimi Iznita Mohamed Iqbal, department of psychology at International Islamic University Malaysia. “With global financial uncertainty, money is a factor that stresses individuals, and people with families. New graduates also worry as they’re getting their first job. This kind of stress works on multiple levels: the personal, the family and at work."
“Anxiety has a positive side in that it pushes us to get something we want,” says Dr Mimi. “Like when you’re presenting something, you get those little butterflies in your stomach. That’s all normal and healthy.
“Anxiety becomes a problem when it’s stopping you getting something you want. Like if you’re a student, your job is to go to class. A little nerves for a big class is good but when anxiety prevents you from going, or has you trying to escape, then you need to address it.”
Another sign that anxiety isn’t your friend is when it travels from one area of your life to another. For example, when work anxiety impacts on your private relationships.
If you feel you’re going overboard, Prof Eysenck offers this tip: “Anxiety is often due to exaggerating the threats in one’s own life. Persistent questioning of oneself as to whether this might be the case is often very effective.”
He suggests that being anxious has two effects: first, you tend to focus more on the negative, and second, you’re likely to see something that’s ambiguous as negative too.
“Our work culture needs to change,” says Dr Goh Chee Leong, President of Malaysian Psychological Association.
“As a senior manager in a large multinational pointed out to me recently, Malaysians work till 8pm or 9pm whereas in the UK, people go home at 5pm. However, productivity is exactly the same! I think we need to change how we work; to be more careful with our time.”
“Second, we need to increase our emotional resilience. If you want to succeed in life, you can’t make life easier, you need to make yourself stronger. Accept it is demanding. So ask yourself, how do I prepare to be stronger so I’m not overwhelmed? Mount Everest won’t shrink for us so we have to ask, how do I equip myself to cope?”
Students are also prone to stress because they are young, struggling with new learning environments, constantly being tested and sometimes they’re away from home and their familiar support structures.
“Understand yourself, so you know when you’re not acting like yourself,” Dr Mimi advises.
“Also, learn to ask for help! You are there for your friends when they need you, so don’t be shy about asking them for help when you need it. It’s all about reciprocating. If you need to, get professional help. This is not a weakness; if you have a medical issue, you see a doctor. This is no different.”
“If you find that anxiety is having a seriously adverse effect on your personal or work life, you should seek professional help,” Prof Eysenck advises. “In essence, this is typically the case when people feel that their anxiety is out of control and they are powerless to reduce it.”
If you’re shy about seeking counsel, Dr Alvin offers a positive note. “We all have experience of what anxiety is about so know that you’re not alone. Unloading and de-stressing is perfectly understandable, so you don’t have to feel too weird asking for help.”
If you’re feeling anxious, the first and safest stop is your doctor. Anxiety can have short and long-term impact on your physical health, so the sensible thing is to get good solid medical advice.
To help you manage your anxiety, you can see a psychiatrist to discuss the various medical treatments available. You can also see a psychologist to discuss talk therapy, a non-pharmaceutical approach to managing the issue.
Whatever you choose to do, the bottom line is this: anxiety is very treatable. So if you or a loved one is suffering, go get some help.