What is anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety affects around 16% of the population at any one time. Stress (a condition related to anxiety) is the second most reported ill-health condition with respect to work-related problems; yet anxiety is something we all feel, so when and how does this normal mechanism, cause us problems? And most importantly how can we regain control of it?

Anxiety is our body’s response to a stressful situation. We all experience anxiety at one point or another. Managing anxiety appropriately, we can use it to help us perform at our best. Top sportsmen, entertainers, politicians will use anxiety to help them preform at their peak.

Anxiety becomes problematic, however, when we are not able to manage it, control it or harness it, when it gets in the way of us doing things that we want to do or when we spend our lives fearing it and avoiding it.

Our 'Overcome Anxiety Programme' is a comprehensive programme that deals with anxiety from every angle to eliminate it from your life.

When anxiety becomes a problem

Anxiety can be specific or general. This means it can occur in response to a stressful event (specific) or be present all the time (general).  Please see our page on Anxiety Disorders for more about specific conditions.

According to the DWP, we would consider anxiety to be a problem when it is “disproportionate to the severity of the stress, continues after the stressor has gone, or occurs in the absence of any external stressful event”. This means a ‘disorder’ exists when anxiety is present at levels that are no longer helpful, but are instead causing a problem in day-to-day life.

If you feel that anxiety is affecting you in this way, you are not alone and there is much that can be done.

The 'Flight or Fight' response

When our bodies feel danger (this maybe real or perceived) chemicals kick in to prepare us to face or flee the danger. This is an instinctive reaction and it is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. If there is no need to use the excess chemicals; adrenaline or the increased oxygen supply, then our bodies begin to act against us, the decreased carbon dioxide levels in our lungs and blood causes us to feel dizzy and disoriented, we can begin to hyperventilate and panic.

Symptoms of anxiety

There are different anxiety disorders, and their symptoms will be different and vary in intensity from person to person. Please see our Anxiety Disorders page for more information on this.

Anxiety itself can cause psychological and behavioural symptoms such as:

  • Intense fear
  • Fear you are ‘going mad’
  • Restlessness, fidgeting, inability to concentrate
  • Sense of impending danger
  • Nervousness feeling ‘on edge’
  • Impatience
  • Irritability
  • Being easily distracted
  • Sleep difficulties – Insomnia
  • Detachment from surroundings

Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms including:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shallow breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach discomfort/pain/nausea
  • Diarrhoea/ increased bowel movements
  • Drowsiness and tiredness
  • Hypersensitivity (sights/sounds appear different perhaps louder/intensified)
  • Pins and needles
  • Tense aching muscles especially in the shoulders/chest and/or abdomen
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating (which may have a different smell)
  • Headache
  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urinating
  • Irregular periods (painful/missed)
  • Insomnia – sleep difficulties
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty Swallowing

These symptoms could indicate an anxiety disorder or another medical condition; these should always be discussed with your GP.

Anxiety can cause longer-term symptoms and changes in behaviour, these can include withdrawing from social activities, avoiding social events, friends and family, even work. It is not uncommon for anxiety sufferers to take up smoking, drinking or taking drugs. Anxiety sufferers can find that in order to try and gain perceived control over their lives they increasingly avoid situations that make them anxious, this can lead to increased isolation and anxiety.

For more information please see our page on Anxiety Symptoms.

Coping with anxiety

So what makes one person able to cope with a situation without worry, stress or anxiety and another to become highly anxious and fearful? Psychologists would argue that, at the level of the individual there are, again, many different components:

  • Genes
  • Infancy
  • Childhood
  • Life Experiences

We look at these in more detail on our Coping with Anxiety – Anxiety Factors page

Managing anxiety

How can we gain control over our anxiety and begin to manage it in an appropriate way? This is a process that tackles anxiety from two sides:

1)Managing the stressors – External factors

These are the things that create stress in our life, our work, our social life, elements external to ourselves that cause us anxiety. These need to be looked at and strategies put in place to minimise these stressful events. We need to ask ourselves: What is causing me stress? What can I do about it? Am I taking on too much? What are the consequences of changing this situation?

We need to find a balance that allows us to minimise stress, but that doesn’t create a tendency to avoid what we need or want to do. The more we avoid anxiety, the more we limit our lives.

2)Managing the responses – Internal factors

Our bodies are designed to respond to stress, to give us the fuel we need to deal with a situation. By understanding more about anxiety and indeed Panic Attacks – Anxiety Attacks and their symptoms we can learn not to fear anxiety itself as much.

Firstly, Panic Attacks – Anxiety Attacks will not kill you. Although it feels incredibly physical and life threatening, it is not. We have put together some excellent ways of helping you deal with anxiety on our No More Panic page.

Anxiety help and treatments

Anxiety can be treated in a variety of ways. Our 'Overcoming anxiety programme' is designed to combine the very best counselling techniques, with practical ways to tackle your anxiety from day one.

Your GP/healthcare provider may also suggest trying one, or a combination of the following:

Talking therapies

Talking therapies can help with anxiety. In the UK, these are available through the NHS or privately. There are different types of talking therapy and your GP should be able to advise or refer you for a consultation to find which would be best for you. Some therapies look at the causes of your anxiety; others take a more pro-active approach of helping you overcome the feelings you are experiencing right now.

Some therapies that may be considered are:

  • Counselling
  • Psychotherapy
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Applied Relaxation
  • Group therapy

We discuss these in more detail on our Anxiety Treatment page.


Medications generally prescribed for anxiety include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) these include Fluoxetine, Citalopram and Sertraline, and Benzodiazepines. Sleeping tablets, tranquillisers and sedatives (including Benzodiazepines) may be used as a short-term solution, while SSRI’s may be longer-term. Please see our Anxiety Treatment page for more information.

Herbal remedies have helped some people, a firm favourite for many is trusted brand Bach's rescue remedy. Also Kalms have been trusted by many to help at times of stress.


There are lots of ways you can help yourself reduce your anxiety. These can include:

  • Learning to control symptoms
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Distraction techniques (for more see here)
  • Assertiveness training
  • Healthy Lifestyle (eating and sleeping well are very important)
  • Communicating your problems

Please see our page on No More Panic for some great pro-active hints, tips and advice.

Friends and family support

Friends and family of sufferers often feel powerless, but there is a lot we can do to support someone with anxiety. We can:

  • Offer help, support and encouragement – it can be easy to become complacent and allow someone to avoid something or to do it for them. When you know there is no danger encourage small steps. Please remember to balance this; it is equally important you do not push someone over his or her capabilities.
  • Remind them of their positives (often anxiety knocks self-esteem)
  • Validate emotions – it is easy for an onlooker to see there is no danger, but simply saying ‘don’tbe silly’ (or the like) is not helpful. Try and listen and talk about why there is a perceived danger, without simply brushing it off because you cannot see one.
  • Do not get angry, it can be hard for you too, but anger can only create a divide.
  • Listen and allow emotion – whether it is anger, fear or sadness, allowing someone to express these emotions can be a real blessing and help them to come to terms with them.
  • Hobbies and distractions – take up a hobby together, perhaps a relaxation class or a simple hobby like crosswords; something that can be practiced in times of anxiety that will help calm and soothe.
  • A hug – closeness can help someone who is anxious, however listen, if someone needs space, just reassure him or her this is OK too.

It can be very hard supporting someone with an anxiety disorder and there is help for you too. SANELine as quoted below offers advice to friends and family members of mental illness sufferers, as well as those experiencing a disorder themselves. The Effects of Stress and Anxiety on the Family (Focus on Family Matters)  is a book that discusses the common causes of stress and anxiety within family life, how to identify signs of stress, ways of coping and resources available, and how anxiety can help to make a family stronger. 


SANEline is open every day of the year from 6pm to 11pm:  0845 767 8000

Anxiety, further help

We hope you have found this information useful, please also see

What Is Anxiety
Fight or Flight
Anxiety Symptoms
Anxiety Disorders
Coping with Anxiety
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Panic Attacks
No More Panic
Anxiety Treatment
Anxiety Management
Managing Stress
Anxiety and Debt
Social Anxiety
Anxiety as a Result of Domestic Abuse
Work Related Stress
Anxiety and Substance Abuse


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