Anxiety is a feeling when someone feels under threat or stress. It is a natural response to threats that has helped with the survival of humans across the ages, but in today’s world, it becomes a problem if it stops us from living our everyday life to the full and we can’t get things done. We all get anxious from time to time – such as before a job interview or an important meeting - and this is normal but some people find that anxiety is constant and affects their normal daily life.
Anxiety can cause symptoms of feeling worried, tense or panicky and physical symptoms can develop such as a feeling the heart is beating hard or fast, sweating, shaking, dry mouth, feeling sick, breathing fast and a heaviness in the chest.
These occur in response to your body releasing adrenaline when it feels under threat. Everyone will experience this feeling at points in their life, but anxiety can also be problematic at times. If anxiety occurs without a reason, if it persists after the threat or stress is over, if the level of anxiety is out of proportion to the threat, or if it affects your day-to-day life, this might be reason to seek help.
Anxiety disorder is an ‘umbrella’ term for many related conditions. People are affected with anxiety in many different ways but some of the more well-known or common anxiety disorder conditions include:
generalised anxiety disorder, which is near-constant anxiety about lots of different things in life
panic disorder, where regular panic attacks occur without a specific reason
social anxiety disorder, which is severe anxiety around social situations or the thought of social situations
post-traumatic stress disorder, where severe anxiety occurs after a traumatic event
obsessive compulsive disorder, known as OCD, where severe anxiety causes repetitive thoughts or actions
phobias, which is severe anxiety around a specific thing or situation
Anxiety disorders are common with around 1 in 20 people suffering from them. They can also occur alongside other mental health conditions, and can sometimes happen ahead of a depressive episode.
There’s no exact cause for an anxiety disorder and anyone can suffer, but it’s more common in people who have gone through difficult or traumatic life events in the past, or who are currently facing or living in difficult life circumstances.
It can also be more common if you have a relative – such as a parent, brother or sister - with an anxiety disorder or if you’re living with a medical condition or other mental health conditions. Some medications can cause anxiety as a side effect, and anxiety can be worsened by smoking or a high caffeine or alcohol intake or use of street or party drugs.
Lifestyle changes can help with anxiety such as getting outdoors or doing regular exercise each day. Talking with someone you trust can also be helpful, as can identifying triggers that lead to symptoms and trying to avoid them. Avoid anything that can make it worse such as drinking alcohol or smoking (including any cannabis use).
You can find self-help or support groups online – it can help to know you’re not alone, and it might help to read about what has worked for others.
Depending on the type of anxiety disorder you have, mindfulness, breathing techniques and meditation can often help with anxiety, and ensuring rest and relaxation in your daily schedule.
You should see your doctor if you have severe or prolonged anxiety symptoms (lasting a month or more) or if it is affecting your day-to-day life. Sometimes anxiety can occur alongside depression – you should seek urgent medical attention if you have any thoughts to harm yourself by booking an urgent doctor's appointment, calling 111 or 999 if out of hours.
The doctor will ask about your medical history and current symptoms. They may ask you questions from a screening questionnaire that can help with diagnosing an anxiety disorder. If the doctor feels it is necessary, they may also do some blood tests as some medical conditions can contribute to symptoms of anxiety.
If your anxiety is mild the doctor may discuss any relevant lifestyle changes and then monitor how you progress. They may also refer you to talking therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which aims to help you learn about your thoughts, how they affect you, make you feel, and how to process and adapt those thoughts. The doctor or psychologist will keep an eye on how you are doing and whether these interventions are helping.
If you have prolonged or severe anxiety the doctor may prescribe you a medication such as an antidepressant to help with symptoms, or recommend you see a clinical psychologist or mental health nurse who can help you explore the anxiety and methods to help control it. There are a variety of medications that can help with anxiety and the doctor will discuss the options with you.
Your fitness to work will depend on the severity of your anxiety and your doctor will assess this with you.
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