What is anxiety?

We all get scared sometimes. But there’s a difference between freaking out about an upcoming exam, and feeling terror every single day about every little thing. So what is anxiety? And how do you get it?

girl looking down

You don't have to feel scared all the time.

What’s the difference between anxiety and getting anxious?

Getting anxious is an unavoidable by-product of being alive. Life is scary sometimes, and anxiety is our body’s biological superhero way of dealing with it.

“Mild to moderate anxiety is perfectly normal and a healthy thing to have,” says Dr Rick Norris, a psychologist. “It’s part of our protection mechanism. So, if you’re worried about doing a presentation at work, for example, getting anxious means you’ll prepare and therefore avoid negative outcomes.”

However, there’s a huge difference between ‘getting anxious’ over a perfectly valid scary event, and having an anxiety disorder – a mental health problem where you worry all the time, about all sorts of different things.

So what turns normal anxiousness into an anxiety disorder?

Generally, an anxiety-related disorder is diagnosed when feelings of worry are controlling and affecting your day-to-day life.

Dr Rick says there are two types of anxiety:

Acute

Think of this as like the sudden burst of pain you get when you stub your toe. Acute anxiety is when you’ve got a particular phobia of something, say spiders, or crowds, and when you’re triggered (i.e. a spider lands on your arm) your anxiety levels go through the roof. Your heart rate rockets, you start sweating, you may even have a panic attack. But, once the stimulus goes away, you calm down.

Chronic

Think of this as like a long-term nagging back pain. You always feel slightly on edge, about everything to do with life. You worry about small things, big things, you obsess over everything you did wrong, you worry you’ll screw up again in the future. As a result, you generally lose self- confidence and stop wanting to do much. Sometimes this is diagnosed as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

You can have both acute and chronic anxiety, or just suffer from one. There are specific types of anxiety disorders too, like OCD, agoraphobia, or panic disorder. Whatever you worry about, whatever it is, if it’s making you unhappy, you deserve help.

How does anxiety work?

Anxiety is an inbuilt biological defence mechanism, designed to protect us back in cavemen times when we needed massive amounts of adrenalin to make us strong enough to fight danger or run away. Times have changed, but our brains haven’t caught up. Instead of panicking about sabre-toothed tigers, anxiety can be triggered by events or feelings that don’t really pose a direct threat to our lives. For some people, anxiety doesn’t even have a reason – it’s just the type of brain they have.

In acute anxiety, it’s usually a reaction to a traumatic experience that you’ve not quite ‘filed’ into your brain properly. So if you were mugged, or sexually assaulted, the memory keeps popping up unexpectedly, or you respond dramatically to triggers.

In terms of chronic anxiety, Dr Rick describes it as your brain being stuck in a negative cycle.

“Imagine your subconscious as being a massive library, filled with DVDs of all your memories and experiences,” he says. “If you have chronic anxiety, you’re always pulling out the ‘bad’ DVDs and choosing to play them in your brain. You filter out the positive, and focus instead on what could go wrong, what has gone wrong in the past – just playing the bad ones over and over until you’re stuck in a cycle.”

How does anxiety affect your life?

Anxiety stops you having the life you want to have. In the worst cases, you get to the point where you don’t take any risks at all. You’re only focusing on what can go wrong so you don’t do anything. You don’t see friends, or travel, or feel able to go to university. You miss out on exciting opportunities, because you don’t feel strong enough, or you’re convinced it’ll all go tits-up, so what’s the point?

This can become self-fulfilling. For example, you worry you won’t do well in your exams, so you spend so much time panicking you don’t revise properly. And so – you don’t do well in your exams.

Remember though, you are entitled to have the life you want and deserve, and you can fight anxiety.

How can I get help for my anxiety?

If you’re worried you may have a problem with anxiety, the most important thing to do is tell someone you trust about how you’re feeling.

If you think you need help, it’s worth going to your GP and asking for some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or to be recommended some online counselling.

We also have an article about coping with anxiety that you may find helpful.

Next Steps

  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • SANE offer support and information to people affected by mental illness. 0300 304 7000
  • AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 08444 775 774
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Photo by Darren Baker.