- Anxiety is the mind and body’s natural response to a real or perceived threat.
- Everybody experiences anxiety sometimes, but if it is distressing or overwhelming, or impacting on a person’s day-to-day life, it might be a cause for concern.
- Lifestyle changes, self-help strategies, and more formal treatments can help people manage anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is something everyone experiences from time to time. It involves fearful thoughts and behaviours in response to a possible threat. Anxiety itself isn’t bad. In fact, it’s an important emotional and physical experience that can protect us from harm.
Anxiety can vary in strength, from mild to very severe. It can pass quickly or last a long time. It can be triggered by many situations, including social settings, performances or speeches, crowds, deadlines, health issues, or threats to safety and wellbeing.
Most people experience anxiety at some point in their life. It’s also a common symptom of many mental health issues. A variety of anxiety disorders have been identified. Some of the most common anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder (panic attacks), and social anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is different from normal worry or stress. It can involve lots of symptoms, such as (1):
- Worrying: fearing or assuming the worst will happen; overestimating the danger of a situation; or assuming things will go wrong, and the consequences will be terrible.
- Difficulty controlling worry: having trouble managing anxious thoughts and being overwhelmed by them.
- A fear of uncertainty: being uncomfortable not knowing what is going to happen, or what to do.
- Avoidance: avoiding situations, people or places that cause anxiety. Or using ‘safety behaviours’ like checking or over-preparing to feel more comfortable about the feared situation.
- Physical symptoms: these can include a pounding heart, difficulty breathing, upset stomach, muscle tension, headache, sweating or choking, feeling faint or shaky, or difficulty sleeping.
- Panic attacks: intense periods of fear, discomfort and physical symptoms, usually peaking within a few minutes.
Some people experience anxiety for their whole life and don’t know what it feels like to live without anxiety – it just feels normal to be worried and on edge. But living with chronic anxiety can cause long term impacts. This includes increased risk of physical health issues, such as headaches, nausea, immune system problems, heart problems, and stomach problems.
Causes of anxiety
Anxiety will feel different from person to person. Genetic factors and life experiences can impact both how serious a person's anxiety is, and what it feels like for them (2).
Part of what creates anxiety is our body's normal reaction to a perceived threat – the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response involves our body preparing us for action. By increasing heart rate, muscle tension and fast breathing, our body prepares to either fight or escape danger.
Though helpful for keeping us safe, these responses, can feel overwhelming and confusing. Especially when it occurs when we're not actually 'in danger', just going about our everyday lives. Having a fight or flight response when we are not technically at risk of harm, is key to the experience of anxiety.
Some people find the following strategies and activities can help them prevent, manage, or reduce their anxiety:
- Learning strategies to manage unhelpful thoughts, including understanding anxiety thought processes, and challenging or reframing anxious thoughts.
- Relaxation and breathing training to calm the body and mind.
- Developing and practicing mindfulness skills.
- Learning to gradually face (rather than avoid) situations that usually trigger anxiety.
- Looking after physical health through healthy eating, exercise, and sleeping well.
- Avoiding or reducing nicotine, caffeine, alcohol or other drugs.
Treatment and support for anxiety
Not everybody who experiences anxiety needs mental health support. For many people, anxiety is a temporary experience, or mild enough to not cause problems.
But many people do find treatment and support helpful. If you are interested in getting support to manage anxiety, it’s a good idea to talk to a GP first. A GP can provide information and refer you on to other health professionals or support services.
Here are some psychological therapies that have been found to be helpful for managing anxiety disorders (3):
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- exposure therapy
- psychodynamic therapy
- eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR)
- interpersonal psychotherapy.
Some people also find medication helpful to manage their anxiety, particularly if it is severe or ongoing (3).
Anxiety is a normal part of life, but there are things you can do to help manage it if it is causing problems.
To connect with others who get it, visit our online Forums. They’re safe, anonymous and available 24/7.
- Anxiety self-assessment (Black Dog Institute).