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Definition of Anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear. We all feel anxious at times, but anxiety may be a mental health problem if your feelings are very strong or last a long time. 

*Last updated: 21 February 2022

What is anxiety?

 It’s normal to feel anxious sometimes. It’s how we respond to feeling threatened, under pressure or stressed: for example if we have an exam, job interview or doctor’s appointment.

Anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can spur us on, help us stay alert, make us aware of risks and motivate us to solve problems.

However, anxiety can be a problem if it’s affecting your ability to live your life. If your anxiety is ongoing, intense, hard to control or out of proportion to your situation, it can be the sign of a mental health problem.

Help is available no matter how long you’ve felt anxious for or how severe your symptoms are. There are many different types of treatment, so talk to your GP about all your options.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety can affect both your body and mind.

The effect on your mind can include:

  • a feeling of dread or fearing the worst
  • feeling on edge or panicky
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • feeling detached from yourself or the world around you.

Physical feelings can include:

  • restlessness
  • feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • wobbly legs or pins and needles in your hands and feet
  • shortness of breath or hyperventilating
  • heart palpitations (a noticeably strong, fast heartbeat)
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • needing the toilet more or less often
  • sweating
  • sleep problems
  • panic attacks.

Anxiety can also affect your behaviour. You may withdraw from friends and family, feel unable to go to work, or avoid certain places. While avoiding situations can give you short-term relief, the anxiety often returns the next time you’re in the situation. Avoiding it only reinforces the feeling of danger and never gives you a chance to find out whether your fears are true or not.

Some people with anxiety may appear to be fine on the outside while still having some of the symptoms listed above. You may have developed ways of hiding your anxiety so that other people don’t notice it.

What is an anxiety disorder?

If your symptoms of anxiety meet a certain criteria, your GP may diagnose you with an anxiety disorder. Some common anxiety disorders include:

  • generalised anxiety disorder – feeling anxious or worried most of the time
  • panic disorder – having regular panic attacks, often for no apparent reason
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – having anxiety problems after experiencing a very stressful or frightening event
  • social anxiety disorder – a fear or dread of social situations
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – having recurring unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) and performing certain routines (compulsions) to relieve anxiety
  • phobias – an overwhelming fear of a specific object, place, situation or feeling.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems. Up to one in 20 people in the UK have generalised anxiety disorder. 

What causes anxiety disorders?

There are many different factors that can make anxiety disorders more likely to happen. These include genetics, having a painful long-term health condition, traumatic events such as childhood abuse or domestic violence, or drug or alcohol misuse. Your current life situation can also trigger anxiety – for example, money or housing problems, unemployment, work stress, loneliness, bullying, or difficult family or personal relationships.

Getting support

There are different ways to treat and manage anxiety disorders. The right treatment for you will depend on your type of anxiety disorder, how severe it is and your personal circumstances. 

The first step to getting support is usually to speak to your GP. This might feel hard, especially if your anxiety makes it difficult to speak on the phone or leave your home. See if you can book an appointment online, or ask someone to call up to book it for you. They could also come with you to your appointment for support. Or you could refer yourself  for talking therapy (in England only) if that feels easier.

During your appointment, your GP will assess you and then explain your treatment options.

Self-help resources

Your GP may offer you self-help resources such as workbooks or online CBT courses. These are often available quite quickly and may be enough to help you feel better without trying other options. Have a look at the NHS free apps library to see if there’s anything that might help you. NHS Inform has an online anxiety self-help guide you can work through.

Talking therapy

This involves working through your thoughts, feelings and behaviours with a mental health professional. Two kinds of therapy are particularly recommended for anxiety.

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you learn strategies for recognising and overcoming distressing or anxious thoughts.
  • Applied relaxation involves learning to relax your muscles in situations that usually make you anxious.

Medication

There are different medications to manage both the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety. Talk to your GP about which one might be right for you.

The NHS website has more information about medication for anxiety disorders.

Ways you can look after yourself

  • Talk about how you’re feeling and what’s making you anxious. Just being heard and understood may make you feel better. You could open up to a friend or call Anxiety UK’s helpline.
  • Look after your physical health.  Eating well, staying physically active, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol and getting enough sleep can also help you manage anxiety better.
  • Breathing exercises can help: our page on panic attacks has some suggestions. Some people find practicing mindfulness useful, but be aware it isn’t recommended for social anxiety.
  • Consider joining a peer support group. They offer a safe place to share your experiences and worries with other people who also have an anxiety disorder. Ask your GP about local groups or visit our page on peer support. Anxiety UK offers online support groups. Anxiety Explained 2022 Anxiety Explained 2022 Anxiety Explained 2022 Anxiety Explained 2022

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