New research has suggested that 85% of people in the UK suffer from anxiety or stress. As taboos surrounding mental health are fading away, this is the latest piece of research to suggest that anxiety is a widespread condition.
The survey, by market research firm Mintel, found that 85% of UK adults suffer from anxiety or stress at least sometimes, with three in 10 reporting it at least three times a week, and 15% every day.
A study for the UK Council for Psychotherapy similarly reflected that anxiety and depression among workers in the UK has risen by almost a third in the past four years . One in twenty people are touched by anxiety each year, according to the mental healthy charity Mind.
"I think we're talking more about anxiety than ever and I've been CEO of Anxiety UK for nearly 20 years," Nicky Lidbetter, Chief Executive of Anxiety UK, told IBTimes UK. "Anxiety is at the acceptable end of the spectrum [of mental health]. People feel able to to talk about it."
However, the terms stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. How can a person know if the stress they are experiencing is a healthy response to a stressful situation, or if they have an disorder such as generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?
"I wonder how many of those 85% have a clinical disorder?" questioned Lidbetter.
The answer appears to lie to some extent in whether the symptoms are debilitating.
"Anxiety is a normal response to threat or danger," Dr Kate Lovett, Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, explained to IBTimes UK. "As human beings we are hard-wired to experience physiological symptoms of anxiety in difficult or challenging circumstances. And there is evidence that anxiety can be helpful in helping us perform optimally."
These might include being "in the zone" before a sporting event in a way that doesn't cloud the concentration. "Feeling anxious is part of normal human experience and is helpful for our survival and performance," she added.
An anxiety disorder, however, is characterised by a response that is disproportionate to a point where it has a significant impact on a person's daily life, according to Lidbetter. Physical symptoms might include an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, as well behaviours such as avoidance of a situation and catastrophic thoughts including the fear of humiliation. In the worst cases, it can render a person housebound or even lead them to take their lives.
"Anxiety affects everyone differently, and it can be difficult to tell at first if you're just reacting to the normal stresses and strains of life," Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at mental health charity Mind, told IBTimes UK. "But if you're fretting more frequently than you used to, drinking more than normal, finding it hard to sleep, worrying about things excessively, or regularly experiencing physical symptoms, such as breathlessness, sweating and rapid heartbeat, you could have anxiety."
"If left untreated, anxiety can have a huge impact on day to day life, lowering your immune system and affecting your ability to hold down a job, form and maintain relationships or take pleasure in life," she added.
It is not entirely clear why a person may suffer from an anxiety disorder. Evidence suggests that there may be an imbalance in neurotransmitters, explained Lidbetter, while more and more research points to the effects of the diet and inflammatory responses in the body. The social environment and genetics may also play a part which can be triggered by life events such as a bereavement.
Is there a danger, then, that as people become more aware and less embarrassed by mental illness, that people will self-diagnose when they are in fact dealing with manageable stress – in turn making it harder for those who require urgent help to access it?
Dr Lovett doesn't believe this is an issue. "In my experience people don't usually seek help unless they are suffering significantly," she said. "I would encourage anyone who is struggling to cope or worried about themselves to seek help. That is often the most difficult but always the most important step to getting better."