That Nasty Virus Could Be Anxiety Attacking Your Body

Article excerpt

Byline: LUCY ELKINS

FOR as long as she can remember, Amy Shortt's life has been overshadowed by her anxieties. But these are not the little fears or niggles that bother everyone from time to time.

Amy lives with an almost permanent sense of dread that something awful is going to happen.

'It hangs over me all the time,' she says. 'I worry about going out, what will happen as I drive to work and about what I've done during the day. While I try to laugh with work colleagues, inside I'm actually in pieces worrying about what might happen next.'

At times her fear is so intense that she feels dizzy and her palms become sweaty. Every few weeks or so she also suffers from panic attacks, when her heart starts to race and she fights for breath.

'It can happen anywhere,' she says. 'The first time I was with Mum watching TV when I was suddenly overcome by this overwhelming sense of dread. I felt as if I was going to die.'

Amy -- a funny, intelligent 29-year-old who is a support worker for young people -- felt too ashamed to ask for help and for years has hidden the condition from all but her close family and boyfriend. 'Even some of my best friends don't know,' she says.

Last year, she finally decided to see a GP. 'It took me ages to pluck up the courage. I began by saying: "I have been feeling really anxious -- I get sweaty, nervous and dizzy."

'Before I could say any more, she got up, shone a light in my ear and told me: "You've got a virus." She told me to rest, and to come back if I didn't feel any better.

'I was stunned. All I could manage to say was: "I don't think it is that." I left feeling even more anxious than when I went in.' Amy moved to another GP, but it was months before she could face going to see them.

When she finally did, the GP diagnosed anxiety disorder and started the process of trying to find the right treatment for her.

AS COUNTLESS people like Amy have found, getting a diagnosis can be difficult. And even when sufferers are diagnosed, often they don't always get the right treatment.

Anxiety -- the medical term is generalised anxiety disorder -- means someone feels unusually and inappropriately anxious on a virtually daily basis.

It is a common problem, with almost 14 per cent of the adult population in Ireland affected, according to figures from the St Patrick's Mental Health Services.

David Clark, a professor of clinical psychology, explains: 'Anxiety is a natural response. If you see a lion, your body will respond. Your heart rate will increase, for example, in preparation to run.

'For people with anxiety, the response is real but there is nothing real to trigger it. It ruins lives. People feel unable to go out and live life, even enjoy their children, because of their anxiety.'

The causes are unknown.

'Research has shown that it is not based on a major chemical imbalance -- it is just that there is a difference in the way these people think,' says Professor Clark.

Those with generalised anxiety tend to have one or more types of anxiety. These include social anxiety disorder, about mixing with people; post-traumatic stress syndrome, which starts after a traumatic event such as an accident; obsessive compulsive disorder, feeling overwhelmed by obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviour; and panic disorder, characterised by sudden attacks of panic when you think you're severely ill or going to die.

'One-third of people will have the odd panic attack because of, for example, too much caffeine,' says Professor Clark.

As we have already seen on page five, caffeine and other foods, or stress, can affect the nervous system, causing palpitations that trigger a panic attack.

Around 6 per cent of the population go on to have repeated panic attacks. This seems to hinge on if they think the worst about their first attack. …