Anxiety and stress

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a person’s natural response to a threat in their surroundings. It can make people feel edgy, nervous, restless, or worry about things too much. Anxiety can be good because it can help people to avoid putting themselves, or others, in dangerous situations. It is also normal to worry about our children or loved ones, but when the worry and anxiety gets out of control and affects a person’s day-to-day functioning, then they may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can vary from a feeling of uneasiness to strong and frightening panic attacks. People can experience anxiety for a short period of time, or in more serious cases for a number of years.

If people keep experiencing high levels of anxiety over a long period of time, it can lead to depression. For some people, substance misuse (alcohol and other drugs) becomes a part of life as a way to help them manage their anxiety and relax, but this often leads to an increase in anxiety.

There are different types of anxiety disorders and people may show the signs of one or more at the same time; this is called comorbidity. The types of anxiety disorders include:

Acute stress disorder (ASD)

This is a reaction to a traumatic event. People with ASD may continue to experience the trauma through flashbacks or dreams, they might avoid people or places that remind them of the traumatic event, or they may experience emotional and muscular (muscle) tension which can affect sleeping and concentration. Examples of situations that can lead to ASD include seeing a serious accident or a death. Most people tend to get over the trauma of the event within a month.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is the result of a traumatic event, but it is different to ASD because the anxiety relating to the event can last for a longer period of time. It is common for people with PTSD to relive the trauma in dreams, flashbacks, or memories and they often avoid situations that remind them of the traumatic event. An example of an event that may lead to PTSD among some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people include the trauma experienced by members of the Stolen generations.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD may occur when people worry too much, or are fearful about situations that could happen when there is no reason for concern. The anxiety people feel is out of control and the physical (e.g., headaches, stomach aches) and emotional (e.g., edgy) symptoms, that often occur on a daily basis, can last as long as six months. People suffering GAD find it hard to go to work and live normal lives.

Panic disorder (PD)

People suffering from PD experience panic attacks which are described as a feeling of fear or terror. They are afraid of further panic attacks and experience high levels of panic in situations that other people would not be afraid of. It is common for people experiencing a PD to believe that they are going to die or have a heart attack because many of the signs are similar to those for a heart attack (e.g., dizziness, shaking, rapid heartbeat, feeling sick).

Phobic disorders (specific phobias, agoraphobia and social phobia)

Phobic disorders are when a person has a lasting and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that leads them to avoid these objects or situations. For example, agoraphobia is when people avoid certain situations because they fear they may have a panic attack, and it may be difficult or embarrassing for them to escape from the situation. Such situations might include public transport or crowds. This can result in people not leaving their homes because of the phobia. A social phobia means people avoid social situations because they are worried they will do something to embarrass themselves, or they will appear too anxious. Specific phobias are fears of things or situations, for example, spiders, heights, or small closed-in spaces.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

This anxiety disorder involves obsessive thoughts (a need to always think about the same thing) and compulsive behaviours (having the need to act in a particular way over and over again due to the obsessive thoughts). The obsessive thoughts usually take place because of an extreme fear of contamination (e.g., germs) or harm. These thoughts lead people to repeat behaviours (e.g., washing their hands often) to help reduce the anxiety relating to those thoughts.

How common is anxiety among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

Survey information from the latest Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (AATSIHS) found that nearly one-in-three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have experienced high levels of psychological distress (which includes feelings of depression and anxiety) [26817]. In the four weeks before they were interviewed; this is was almost three times the level for non-Indigenous Australians.

According to the 2014-15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), the most common causes of stress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were [32429]:

  • death of a family member or close friend (28% of people surveyed)
  • not being able to get a job (19%)
  • serious illness (12%)
  • other work-related stressors (11%)
  • mental illness (10%).

Education level, employment status and high levels of stress can affect a person’s SEWB [29665]:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had only a year 9 education were more likely to experience high or very high levels of psychological distress compared with those who were educated to year 12 (34% compared with 26%).
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were unemployed were more likely to experience high or very high levels of psychological distress compared with those who were employed (42% compared with 22%).

In 2012–13, almost one-third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults with high/very high levels of psychological distress saw a health professional about their distress in the four weeks before interview [33151].


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Untitled by Donna Lei Rioli

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