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Human resources: Dealing with anxiety

Every Issue

Cite as: December 2009 83(12) LIJ, p.79


While anxiety is often a normal reaction, for some it can be debilitating. Mental Health First Aid principles can be used to help sufferers in your organisation.

For the majority of people, anxiety is short-lived and minor in terms of its effect on the body and mind. However, one in 10 people can suffer from anxiety which is intrusive, constant and distressing.1

While anxiety is often the poor cousin to depression when thinking about mental illnesses,2 help is available. The Mental Health First Aid principles discussed in last month’s LIJ can also be used for anxiety disorders.3

One may suffer from a “Generalised anxiety disorder” (GAD), “obsessive compulsive disorder” (OCD), “panic disorder”, “social anxiety disorder” and/or “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD).

Most anxious people are born with a predisposition or a genetic vulnerability, although personality and environmental factors are likely to contribute significantly to the onset of the condition.

Environmental factors may include a break-up of a serious relationship, financial problems, experiences during critical stages in a child’s formative years, excessive drug and alcohol use or physical health problems.

As with any medical condition, a qualified diagnosis from a medical practitioner is the best starting point.

Psychological treatment complements medical attention and several self-help tools can be used to control the severity and the number of episodes.

It is important to first understand anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety disorders vary and can affect people in various ways too. There is no “one size fits all” approach to anxiety; in fact, personality and environmental factors potentially affect how someone perceives any given situation or event.

You may recognise some of the symptoms in yourself or in a work colleague, family member or friend.

General symptoms of anxiety can include the following:4

  • excessive feelings of dread and worry about what may happen now or in the future;
  • persistent worry and endless thoughts about negative events in the past;
  • obsessive thoughts which are difficult to squash;
  • compulsive behaviours such as the need to do things repeatedly, such as washing one’s hands, hundreds of times per day; and
  • feelings of real panic and fear in situations where there is no obvious or real danger.

GAD

GAD is characterised by persistent and relentless worry that an individual realises is excessive and out of the norm.

People can become anxious about almost any situation and GAD sufferers could present to others as irritable, nervy and ridden with uneasy feelings.5

Sufferers may turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate and may experience insomnia or disturbed sleep, all detrimental to oneself and work-related performance.

OCD

OCD is characterised by intrusive thoughts about unpleasant things that may happen.

An extremely distressing condition for the person affected, it is also stressful for friends, family and work colleagues.

Sufferers may fear germs (hence the need to continually wash their hands), have intrusive thoughts of a sexual nature, fear leaving appliances on (hence the repetitive behaviour of turning things off several times) and fear violence or causing harm to others.6

It is common for OCD sufferers to avoid situations where there is a chance that their fears may be triggered or where they do not know if they can trust themselves. As a consequence, many people feel compelled to stay within their own comfort zones.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety involves intense anxiety associated with social situations to such a point that the person struggles to live a satisfying and fulfilling life.

People who suffer from a social anxiety disorder may feel like they cannot cope when dealing with others in a social context for fear of embarrassment and humiliation in public. The natural reaction is to avoid a social environment, to make excuses for non-attendance at social functions such as monthly drinks and generally to appear withdrawn and disinterested in anything social.7

PTSD

This disorder is the result of a traumatic event which was intense in its nature and which left the person feeling helpless and out of control.

Symptoms may be instantaneous or may take months or years to manifest. Witnessing a traumatic event such as a car accident or suicide, drug abuse or overdose, armed confrontation, sexual assault and/or abuse of any nature may lead to someone developing this condition.

A person suffering from PTSD may be easily startled, nervy and overly emotional, or conversely may feel “numb” and free of emotion.8

Panic disorders/panic attacks

A panic attack is a period of intense fear or discomfort and consists of four or more of the symptoms listed below in a 10-minute period.

Panic attacks typically have an abrupt onset and whether warranted or not, the attack is real to the sufferer; some truly believe they will die from the ordeal.

Panic symptoms include: palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, breath-lessness, a choking sensation, chest pain or discomfort, nausea, dizziness, feeling detached from oneself, a real fear of losing control or even dying at the height of the attack, a tingling or numb sensation in the body, and/or chills or hot flushes.9

Strategies

It must be reiterated that a visit to a general practitioner is an essential first step towards treatment.

The GP may prescribe medication or suggest counselling. Counselling and positive self-affirmation have proven to be successful in restoring the balance and minimising chances of reoccurring episodes of anxiety attacks.

Some other proven strategies to consider adopting for panic disorders are:

  • Learn to stay where you are until the attack passes. Attacks are normally short-lived, although for the sufferer they may appear to last much longer.
  • Concentrate on controlling anxiety attacks by practising slow, relaxed and rhythmical breathing.
  • Discuss ways to challenge the fears (for example, you could remind yourself that you are “not having a heart attack. This is a panic attack and it will pass in a few minutes”).
  • Talk with a trusted work colleague after you have an attack. This is particularly important if you require some time alone or a break from work to gather your thoughts and compose yourself.
  • Keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. The recommended dose is less than 100mg per day, i.e. one cup of percolated coffee or two diet cola beverages per day.
  • Practise daily relaxation methods. This may help to better manage and control current and future episodes.
  • Make the time to exercise on a regular basis (at least 30 minutes, three times per week). It does not have to be strenuous exercise to make a difference, a brisk walk at lunchtime would suffice.
  • Partake in leisure time and pleasurable activities with friends, family and work colleagues.
  • Get adequate sleep. Without a good night’s rest, it is easy for experiences and events to become overwhelming and out of control. A well-rested person is better equipped to deal with life’s highs and lows.
  • Use evidence-based anxiety websites or self-help books and consider attending support groups.
  • Use your GP. They are best placed to refer you to a psychologist if needed, and can potentially provide advice on medication such as anti-depressants and sedatives should it be warranted.

Anxiety disorders should be treated in the same way as any other medically-diagnosed illness.

For people afflicted with an anxiety disorder, the condition is real and at times frightening.

Without treatment, sufferers may become isolated and retreat from society as we know it. It is for this reason that people need to feel supported and empowered with the knowledge to make a decision to seek professional help.

An indepth consultation with a medical practitioner and/or a referral to a psychologist is a winning solution to a relatively common mental health concern within our workplaces and from a wider perspective within our community.


KIRSTEN VAN DE HOEF is the LIV’s Human Resources coordinator. For further information on this column and other HR issues ph 9607 9548 or visit www.liv.asn.au.

The LIV acknowledges and thanks Sane Australia, www.sane.org for the valuable information it provides.

The LIV website has a series of Fact Sheets which cover all aspects of mental health, from personal and workplace stress, anxiety disorders and depression. See www.liv.asn.au/Getting-Legal-Advice/LawCare.aspx.

1. The SANE Guide to Anxiety Disorders, introduction page, see www.sane.org.

2. Power, B, “The mental illness that flies under the radar”, The Age, 19 October 2009. See www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-mental-illness-that-flies-under-the-radar-20091019-h4jv.html.

3. See “Minding health issues”, November 2009 LIJ, p81.

4. Note 1 above, p3.

5. Note 1 above, p5.

6. Note 1 above, p6.

7. Note 1 above, p8.

8. Note 1 above, p9.

9. See beyondblue at www.beyondblue.org.au.

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