Anxiety

It’s normal to feel anxious when you’re stressed or in danger. But if worries and fears are overwhelming you, anxiety can be a problem.

Use this guide to learn about anxiety so you can better deal with situations that make you anxious.

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Learn about anxiety

We talk about what anxiety looks like, what causes it, and why you should take action. 

  • What is anxiety?

    Anxiety can be described as a feeling of fear or panic.

    Most of us feel anxious about certain situations, like being in debt or starting a new job. But those feelings should go away. If your anxiety continues even when the difficult situation is over this might indicate that your anxiety is a problem.

  • Recognising the symptoms of an anxiety disorder

    Because anxiety is a normal human emotion, it's sometimes hard to recognise when it's becoming a problem. But there’s a difference between feeling mildly anxious because you’re having a performance review and feeling an overwhelming sense of anxiety that interferes with your daily life and makes you unhappy.

    So how do you know if what you’re experiencing is an anxiety disorder?

    Anxiety can feel different for different people. But if your fears and worries affect several aspects of your daily life, last for at least two weeks and have both emotional and physical symptoms, you may have an anxiety disorder. 

    The emotional symptoms of anxiety can include

    Being unable to sit still
    Feeling on edge and restless
    Feeling like something horrible is about to happen
    Feeling easily irritated

    The physical symptoms of anxiety can include 

    A racing heart
    Headaches
    Pins and needles
    Struggling to breathe
    Shaking
    A dry mouth
    Sweating
    A churning sensation in your stomach
  • Causes of anxiety

    We don't know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. And some people don’t have any identifiable cause for their anxiety. But we know a number of things make it more likely that you experience anxiety. 
     
    Going through a traumatic experience. If you've previously gone through a traumatic experience which you were unable to deal with emotionally, you may become anxious if a similar situation arises or seems likely to arise.
     
    Having parents or relatives with anxiety. We learn from others and imitate their behaviours. Feeling anxious could be something you learned early on in life. We may also inherit a genetic tendency to be more anxious.
     
    Fearing you'll lose control. If you feel you’re not in control of aspects of your life, you may start to feel anxious about events beyond your control, such as the threat of being attacked, of developing cancer or of losing your job. 
     
    Your physical health. Having a long-term health condition, especially if it’s painful, can make you more likely to experience anxiety. Caffeine, too much sugar, unhealthy foods, drugs, exhaustion, stress and the side effects of certain medications can also make you feel anxious.
  • Types of anxiety disorders

    We all respond to anxiety and panic in different ways, and there are several types of anxiety disorders. Here are some details on the most common ones.
     
    Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. If you have GAD you might feel anxious most days and struggle to remember the last time you felt relaxed. As soon as you resolve one anxious thought, another may appear about a different issue.
     
    Social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder is more than shyness. If you experience it, you might feel intense fear and anxiety over everyday activities, such as shopping or speaking on the phone. Many of us worry about certain social situations, but social anxiety disorder means you worry excessively about these situations before, during and after them. You might be afraid of doing or saying something you think will be embarrassing or humiliating, like blushing or sweating.
     
    Panic disorder. A panic disorder is where you have recurring and regular panic attacks, usually for no apparent reason. You might start sweating or shaking, feel like your heart is racing or skipping beats, or feel like you’re going to be sick. You may also want to stop what you're doing and run away. Panic attacks can be frightening and intense, but they’re not dangerous. Worrying about having further attacks can make you avoid people, places or situations where you had an attack before.
  • Treatment for anxiety

    There are lots of different ways to treat anxiety. Depending on how mild or severe your anxiety is, you might be offered one of the following treatments.

    Self-management programmes. These usually come in the form of workbooks and computer programmes which you get support to complete. 

    Group work. This involves working with a group of people who also have anxiety. Group work can be especially helpful if you have social anxiety.

    Relaxation techniques. There are a range of relaxation techniques that can be effective for managing anxiety. These include deep breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness and others. You might be trained by a health professional to practice one of these, or given some material so you can train yourself. 
     
    Exercise plans. Regular exercise boosts the release of endorphins (your body’s feel-good chemicals), helping to reduce anxiety. You may be offered an exercise plan as part of a group or for you to work through on your own.

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of talking therapy that helps you manage your anxiety by changing the way you think and behave. Through practice you learn to manage your thoughts, assumptions and the emotions they trigger. 

    Medication. If your anxiety is moderate or severe, a health professional may offer you medication, like antidepressants, or a combination of medication and talking therapy. 
  • Why you should manage your anxiety

    If you’ve felt anxious for a long time, or if you’re often anxious, your body and mind may experience further effects. These can include difficulty sleeping, problems with your digestive system, a weakened immune system or a higher likelihood of having a stroke. You could also develop depression. Sleep problems may make your feelings of anxiety even worse and reduce your ability to cope.
     
    Sometimes, anxiety can be so overwhelming it takes over your life. If your anxiety is severe, you may find it difficult to work, to develop or maintain good relationships, or simply to enjoy your time. 
     
    You might even develop a phobia about going out, or may withdraw from contact with people, even from your family and friends. Or you might have obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviour, such as endlessly washing your hands.

    By taking action to manage your anxiety you will be able to reduce the likelihood or impact of these negative effects.

Next steps

Anxiety can make you feel like you have no control, but this isn’t true. Anxiety is a treatable health condition. Use our action plan to find out how you can start to get help.