By Kirsty Duffield
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
When is anxiety a mental health problem?
Anxiety can become a mental health problem if it impacts on your ability to live your life as fully as you want to. For example, it may be a problem for you if:
• your feelings of anxiety are very strong or last for a long time
• your fears or worries are out of proportion to the situation
• you avoid situations that might cause you to feel anxious
• your worries feel very distressing or are hard to control
• you regularly experience symptoms of anxiety, which could include panic attacks
• you find it hard to go about your everyday life or do things you enjoy.
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety feels different for everyone. You might experience some of the things listed below, and you might also have other experiences or difficulties that are not listed here.
Effects on your body
• a churning feeling in your stomach
• feeling light-headed or dizzy
• pins and needles
• feeling restless or unable to sit still
• headaches, backache or other aches and pains
• faster breathing
• a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
• sweating or hot flushes
• problems sleeping
• grinding your teeth, especially at night
• nausea (feeling sick)
• needing the toilet often
• changes in your sex drive
• having panic attacks.
Effects on your mind
• feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
• having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
• feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
• feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you
• feeling like you can't stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying
• worrying about anxiety itself, for example worrying about when panic attacks might happen
• wanting lots of reassurance from other people or worrying that people are angry or upset with you
• worrying that you are losing touch with reality
• rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
• depersonalisation – feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you are watching someone else (this is a type of dissociation)
• derealisation – feeling disconnected from the world around you, or like the world is not real (this is a type of dissociation)
• worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future – you can read more about these sorts of worries on the Anxiety UK website.
How else might anxiety affect my life?
Anxiety symptoms can last for a long time or come and go.
You might find you have difficulty with day-to-day aspects of your life, including:
• looking after yourself
• holding down a job
• forming or maintaining relationships
• trying new things
• simply enjoying your leisure time.
What causes anxiety?
No one knows exactly what causes anxiety problems, but there probably lots of factors involved. This list covers some things which make anxiety problems more likely to happen:
• past or childhood experiences
• your current life situation
• physical and mental health problems
• drugs and medication
Current issues or problems in your life can also trigger anxiety.
• exhaustion or a build-up of stress
• long working hours
• being out of work
• feeling under pressure while studying or in work
• having money problems
• homelessness or housing problems
• losing someone close to you
• feeling lonely or isolated
• being bullied, harassed or abused.
How can I help myself?
Living with anxiety can be very difficult, but there are steps you can take that might help.
Talk to someone you trust:
Talking to someone you trust about what is making you anxious could be a relief. It may be that just having someone listen to you and show they care can help. If you are not able to open up to someone close to you, the Samaritans and Anxiety UK both run helplines that you can call to talk to someone.
Try to manage your worries:
It can be hard to stop worrying when you have anxiety. You might have worries you cannot control. Or you might feel like you need to keep worrying because it feels useful – or that bad things might happen if you stop. It can be helpful to try different ways of addressing these worries.
For example, you could:
• Set aside a specific time to focus on your worries – so you can reassure yourself you have not forgotten to think about them. Some people find it helps to set a timer.
• Write down your worries and keep them in a set place – for example, you could write them in a notebook, or on pieces of paper you put in an envelope or jar.
Look after your physical health:
• Try to get enough sleep. Sleep can give you the energy to cope with difficult feelings and experiences.
• Think about your diet. Eating regularly and keeping your blood sugar stable can make a difference to your mood and energy levels.
• Try to do some physical activity. Exercise can be helpful for your mental well being.
Try breathing exercises:
Breathing exercises can help you cope and feel more in control. You can find some suggestions on relaxation on the NHS Choices website.
Keep a diary:
It might help to make a note of what happens when you get anxious or have a panic attack. This could help you spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you or notice early signs that they are beginning to happen. You could also make a note of what is going well. Living with anxiety can mean you think a lot about things that worry you or are hard to do. It is important to be kind to yourself and notice the good things too.
Try peer support:
Peer support brings together people who have had similar experiences to support each other. Many people find it helps them to share ideas about how to stay well, connect with others and feel less alone.
Complementary and alternative therapies:
Yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, massage, reflexology, herbal treatments, Bach flower remedies, and hypnotherapy are all types of complementary therapy that you could try and see if they work for you. Some people find that one or more of these methods can help them to relax or sleep better.