What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety can cause many different symptoms. It can affect how a person feels physically and mentally and how they behave.

It’s not always easy to recognise when anxiety is the reason behind feeling or acting differently, but it is useful to be aware of the symptoms. Anxiety can affect everyone differently.

Physical symptoms

  • Faster, irregular or more noticeable heartbeat
  • Feeling lightheaded and dizzy
  • Headaches
  • Chest pains
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Breathlessness
  • Feeling hot
An abstract pattern of bright green lines with sharp angles

Psychological symptoms

  • Feeling tense or nervous
  • Being unable to relax
  • Worrying about the past or future
  • Feeling tearful
  • Not being able to sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fear of the worst happening
  • Intrusive traumatic memories
  • Obsessive thoughts

Changes in behaviour

  • Not being able to enjoy your leisure time
  • Difficulty looking after yourself
  • Struggling to form or maintain relationships
  • Worried about trying new things
  • Avoiding places and situations that create anxiety
  • Compulsive behaviour, such as constantly checking things

Impact of anxiety on everyday life

Anxiety can have a significant impact on how a person interacts with the world around them. For example, anxiety can lead to social withdrawal, decreased productivity, and reduced quality of life. In some cases, it can cause avoidance behaviours that prevent individuals from pursuing education, work, or social opportunities, or from accessing essential resources such as health or social care or other forms of support.xix

It can make it difficult to maintain interpersonal relationships, to conduct everyday activities independently and to work, and it can impact on the relationship we have with our environment.

Work and career

People with anxiety are more likely to miss days from work and are less productive. Young people with anxiety are also less likely to enter school and complete their education – translating into fewer life chances.xx

Cycle of anxiety

Anxiety can cause vicious circles where the impact of anxiety can affect people in a way that exacerbates the causes of anxiety. In our survey, 29% of people identified work as a source of anxiety; the diagram shows how this might cause anxiety to escalate. A similar cycle can be illustrated by financial strain. Worries about money can have an impact on your mental health, making you more anxious. And anxiety can affect how you manage your money.

Graphic of the cycle of anxiety

Social life

Anxiety can have a significant impact on people’s social life and may create its own vicious circle. People experiencing anxiety may avoid social situations that they perceive as threatening or uncomfortable. This can lead to isolation and decreased social interaction.

Anxiety can also impair an individual’s ability to communicate effectively in social situations, resulting in feelings of discomfort, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, which can further exacerbate social anxiety. This may combine with negative self-image, which can damage self-confidence and self-esteem in social situations. All of which can lead to reduced social support, as people become less likely to reach out to others for help or support.


Anxiety can have a significant impact on relationships with others in several ways.

It can interfere with effective communication, causing misunderstandings and disagreements with partners, family members, or friends. Anxiety can make it challenging for us to express ourselves clearly or make it difficult to listen to and understand other people.

Anxiety can lead to trust issues, leading to doubt and suspicion of partners, friends, or family members. It can create a vicious cycle in which people assume their loved one is dishonest, leading to a decrease in trust and ultimately affecting the whole relationship. It can also affect an individual’s ability to establish and maintain intimacy with their partner or friends. Anxiety can lead to a fear of intimacy, distancing from others, and avoidance of emotional closeness.

An individual suffering from anxiety may try to avoid conflict, leading to pent-up frustrations and ultimately a more significantly damaged relationship. Conversely, however, anxiety can also lead to higher levels of conflict in relationships as it can make people more defensive or quick to be hurt by small things.

Physical health

Anxiety can have an impact on physical health. One of the most common is by disrupting sleep. Anxiety can make it difficult for people to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful sleep, which can lead to a wide range of negative health consequences. Poor sleep has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health conditions.xxi

Research has also found a more direct link between anxiety and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Anxiety can cause the release of stress hormones, which can increase blood pressure and heart rate, leading to chronic stress on the cardiovascular system. Anxiety can lead to unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, overeating, and sedentary lifestyles, all of which can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.xxii

In addition, anxiety can have adverse effects on the immune system.xxiii Anxiety has been shown to activate the body’s stress response, which can lead to a release of stress hormones such as cortisol. When cortisol levels are elevated for extended periods of time, it can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections, illnesses, and other health problems.

Stigma and shame

When people feel anxious, they anticipate and worry about something ‘bad’ happening, such as something harmful to themselves or those they care about. What is anticipated as ‘bad’ or harmful will be different for different people and will depend on a range of factors including what experiences they have had in their lives.

So, for people who have experienced a lot of shame (being judged, criticised, excluded, ignored, rejected) their anxiety may focus on their fear of further shaming experiences. As well as this ‘anxiety about shame’, anxiety can itself be shamed through being dismissed, ridiculed, laughed at, deemed ‘weak’ - including in a gendered way - or ignored.

For people experiencing anxiety, the perception that ‘most people’ will have a negative attitude towards their condition reduces the chance they will seek support, both formally (e.g. from GPs or counselling) and informally (e.g. from family and friends).

This was evidenced in our own research where we found that nearly half of those experiencing anxiety (45%) kept their anxiety secret – this was more likely in men (49%) than women (42%) and even higher amongst those from an Asian background (50%).

We also found that many of those with anxiety (46%) would not tell their employer – again this is more pronounced in men (50%) than women (43%). Amongst males from a Black and minority ethnic background, this rises to 62%.

Uncertain times: Anxiety in the UK and how to tackle it.

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Download the full report (PDF)

xix - de Oliveira, C., Saka, M., Bone, L. et al. The Role of Mental Health on Workplace Productivity: A Critical Review of the Literature. Appl Health Econ Health Policy 21, 167–193 (2023)
xx - Anxiety Disorders Theory, Research and Clinical Perspectives.Simpson, Helen, Blair, Neria, Yuval, Lewis-Fernandez, Roberto, and Schneier, Franklin. (editors) Cambridge University Press, 2010
xxi - https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/sleep/conditioninfo/inadequate-…
xxii - Batelaan NM, Seldenrijk A, Bot M, van Balkom T, Penninx BWJH. Anxiety and new onset of cardiovascular disease: critical review and meta-analysis. January 2016. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.156554
xxiii - Wingo AP, Gibson G. Blood gene expression profiles suggest altered immune function associated with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Brain, behavior, and immunity. 2015;43:184-191. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2014.09.016

What can we do to cope with feelings of anxiety?

Dealing with anxiety can be hard. But there are some things we can do to manage these tough feelings. Have a read through our suggestions and find out what might work for you.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2023

On the theme of 'anxiety', this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is from 15 to 21 May 2023. Learn more about the week and how you can get involved.

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