What is anxiety?

We all get anxious at times, but suffering with an anxiety disorder is different. Here, The Mix looks at what anxiety is, what the symptoms are and how you can get help when you’re experiencing severe anxiety.

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

What’s the difference between anxiety and getting anxious?

Absolutely everyone gets anxious from time to time. It’s the fluttery, agitated feeling that you might get in your stomach before a big life event such as an exam, or a driving test. It’s a normal, human emotion.

“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, an anxiety disorder is slightly different. It’s where the symptoms continue over a prolonged period of time, about all sorts of things – including some which might appear irrational to others.

If left untreated, it can start to take over your life and prevent you from doing things you once loved, such as hanging out with friends or participating in hobbies. But the good news is there is plenty of help out there to enable you to get through it.

Symptoms of anxiety

If you’re suffering from anxiety, there’s a chance that you’ve had the symptoms for a while, but have just brushed them off as “just one of those things” – this is because the symptoms are quite common. Every person is different, but the symptoms can generally be split into two types:

Mental symptoms

Mental symptoms can be difficult to spot, as by their nature they’re intrusive and can cloud your mind. They also tend to vary from person to person. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Uncontrollable over-thinking
  • Overwhelming feelings of dread
  • Feeling irritable or easily annoyed
  • Problems with sleep
  • Changes in appetite

Physical symptoms

If you’re suffering with anxiety, this can manifest itself in many ways physically. Even if you don’t have what could be categorised as an anxiety disorder, it’s highly likely that you’ve experienced these physical symptoms before:

  • Pounding heartbeat
  • Fast paced breathing
  • Sweating
  • Hair loss
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness and fainting

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:

Acute anxiety

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 anxiety

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.

You can have both acute and chronic anxiety, or just suffer from one. Whatever you worry about, whatever it is, if it’s making you unhappy, you deserve help.

What causes it?

In the most simple terms, anxiety is caused by our bodies’ “fight or flight” response. It’s what tells our brains to either run from danger or stay and fight it – which was particularly useful back in the caveman days when there was imminent danger all around. As humans have evolved, this instinct has stayed with us, and it’s the things that trigger this response that have changed.

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.”

Treatment for anxiety disorders

If you’ve been suffering symptoms for a while, you might feel that you’re beyond help – that it’s just a part of who you are, and you’ll just have to learn to cope with it. However, when you’re ready, there are some things you could try to treat it:

  • 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
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help identify where these feelings of anxiety come from, and can show you techniques to deal with it

Read more about coping with anxiety

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 offers support and information to people affected by mental illness. Call their helpline on 0300 304 7000, open 4:30pm - 10:30pm every day.
  • 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.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 13-Jan-2021

Photo by Darren Baker.