We read a lot about the debilitating effects of depression, while low-level anxiety gets less attention. Yet according to experts, it's much more prevalent. "Depression gets more press, but anxiety is by far the most common mental-health problem today," says Catherine O'Neill from Anxiety UK. Caroline Carr, the author of How Not to Worry, defines anxiety as "feeling abnormally tense, worried and apprehensive about lots of different things, even when there is no need to be". Sound familiar? It shouldn't - yet most of us put up with such feelings for a lot of the time, thinking it's quite normal.
There are lots of little signs in our life that reveal we're anxious. Learning to identify them is the first stage in tackling the cause. Physical signs are the most obvious. You may think you store fat around our tummy because you eat too many cakes, for example, but chances are it will also be related to anxiety. Experts agree that too many stress hormones can make the body resistant to insulin, which in turn encourages the body to store more fat than usual.
Persistent back pain can also be a sign you're anxious, unless you've obviously put your back out by lifting something you shouldn't. An uncomfortable ache around the sacrum is usually coupled with shoulders scrunched up towards your ears. The effect of life's strains on our skin can't be underestimated. They often cause or exacerbate skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. "Stress and anxiety can cause skin problems and trigger or heighten others," says Dr Ted Grossbart, the author of Skin Deep.
Disturbed sleep and insomnia are sure signs of anxiety, especially if we are tired all the time during the day and yet still can't sleep at night. We're tired because being anxious wears us out - it makes our bodies pump adrenalin and our heart rate and blood pressure go up. Yet because we're overwrought mentally rather than physically tired out, our brains wake up rather than calm down when our heads hit the pillow.
Grinding our teeth at night and clenching our jaws during the day also reflects anxiety - something that I started to do during research for my first book. I got a mouth guard to wear at night, but the clenching comes back whenever I'm anxious for a prolonged period. It's my sign that I need to stop and address whatever is bothering me. Don't underestimate what our behaviour can reveal. Studies show that when we're anxious, we avoid social situations and stay in more. You may also find yourself cleaning the kitchen or washing your hands a little too often. According to Robert Leahy, the author of Anxiety Free, compulsive cleaning is used by anxious people as a form of risk control.
Attending to these general signs of anxiety is important if we are to avoid tipping into more serious disorders such as phobias. A gentle, repetitive exercise such as swimming or walking should help you relax and sleep at night, and keep the body producing normal levels of fat. It should also ease your back - as will lying on the floor whenever you get a moment. While you're there, or any time you can, take 20 deep, slow breaths, in for a count of five, out for a count of five. Anxiety can upset the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body, and breathing slowly helps restore it.
To calm your skin, you often need to calm your mind, explains Grossbart. "As the boundary between our inside and our outside, the skin can see as much turmoil, passion and intrigue as any border town," he says. Experiment with what works for you. I find acupuncture and yoga especially restorative, but I've also taken up playing the piano and find it as relaxing as a meditation session. Most of all, remember that laughing with friends and interacting socially is one of the best ways we can remain connected with the world and minimise anxiety, while escape and avoidance will only make us feel worse in the long run. Try saying yes to something socially once a week, and next time you reach for the cleaning fluid, get out of the house and go and see a friend. Chances are it will lighten everything up.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author ofBody & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain & Ireland, packed with independent reviews of places to retreat and replenish around the globe. See www.caroline sylgerjones.co.uk.