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. More than one in 20 of us have an anxiety disorder.
*Last updated: 8 July 2021
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.
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
- feeling detached from yourself or the world around you.
Physical feelings can include:
- 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)
- needing the toilet more or less often
- dry mouth
- 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. It can include flashbacks and nightmares
- Social anxiety disorder – a fear or dread of social situations. It’s more than just shyness or nerves: it’s a fear of being judged by others or being embarrassed or humiliated
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – having recurring unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) and performing certain routines repetitively to relieve anxiety (compulsions)
- 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. Slightly more women than men are affected, and it’s more common in people aged between 35 and 59.
What causes anxiety disorders?
There are many different factors that can make anxiety disorders more likely to happen. These include:
- genetics – if you have a close relative with an anxiety disorder, you’re more likely to develop one yourself
- an imbalance of brain chemicals that are involved in controlling and regulating your mood
- having a painful long-term health condition
- experiencing past traumatic events such as childhood abuse, domestic violence or bullying
- a history of drug or alcohol misuse
- your current life situation – such as experiencing money or housing problems, unemployment, work stress, loneliness, or difficult family or personal relationships.
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. They will assess you and then explain your treatment options.
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.
This involves working through your thoughts, feelings and behaviours with a mental health professional. Your GP can refer you or you can refer yourself.
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.
Support groups offer a safe place to share your experiences and worries with other people who also have an anxiety disorder. They can help you manage your anxiety through sharing coping strategies. It can also be comforting and helpful to talk to others who understand what you’re going through. Some groups are facilitated by a mental health professional.
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.
Further resources and information
Our guide on How to overcome fear and anxiety