Most people feel anxious at times and it’s particularly common for someone to feel some level of anxiety when coping with stressful events or changes, especially if they could have a big impact on your life.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is what we feel when we're worried, tense or scared about things that are about to happen, or things we think might happen in the future.

It’s a natural human response when we feel threatened, and it can manifest itself through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.

Is anxiety a mental health problem?

Anxiety can become a mental health problem if it affects your ability to live your life as fully as you like. For example, it can be a problem if:

  • your anxiety is very strong or lasts a long time
  • your fears or concerns are extreme given the situation
  • you avoid situations that may make you feel anxious
  • your concerns are very distressing or difficult to manage
  • you have symptoms that include panic attacks
  • you find it difficult to continue with your daily life or do things you enjoy

If your symptoms match a certain set of medical criteria then you could be diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder, but it's also possible for you to have anxiety problems without a specific diagnosis.

What causes anxiety?

Past or childhood experiences

Difficult experiences in childhood, adolescence or adulthood are a common trigger for anxiety problems. Going through stress and trauma when you're very young is likely to have a particularly big impact. Experiences which can trigger anxiety problems can include:

  • physical or emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • losing a parent
  • being bullied or being socially excluded
  • experiencing racism
Your current life situation

Current problems in your life can also trigger anxiety. For example:

  • exhaustion or a build-up of stress
  • lots of change or uncertainty
  • feeling under pressure while studying
  • long working hours
  • being out of work
  • money problems
  • housing problems
  • worrying about the environment or natural disasters
  • losing someone close to you
  • feeling lonely or isolated 
  • facing abuse, bullying, harassment, or racism
Physical or mental health problems

Other health problems can sometimes trigger or increase anxiety. This can include:

  • living with a physical health condition that is serious, ongoing or life-threatening
  • living with other mental health problems such as depression
Drugs and medication

Anxiety can sometimes be a side effect of taking:

  • some psychiatric medications
  • some medications for physical health problems
  • recreational drugs and alcohol

What does anxiety feel like?

Effects of anxiety on your body

These can include:

  • 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
  • sleep problems
  • grinding your teeth, especially at night
  • nausea
  • needing the toilet more or less often
  • changes in your sex drive
  • having panic attacks
Effects of anxiety on your mind

These can include:

  • 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're losing touch with reality
  • low mood and depression
  • thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
  • depersonalisation, where you feel disconnected from your mind or body, or like you are a character that you are watching in a film
  • derealisation, where you feel disconnected from the world around you, or like the world isn't real
  • worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future
Other effects of anxiety

Anxiety symptoms can last for a long time, or they can come and go. You might find you have difficulty with day to day parts of your life, including

  • looking after yourself
  • holding down a job
  • forming or maintaining relationships
  • trying new things
  • simply enjoying your leisure time

How can I help myself?

Talk to someone you trust

Talking to someone you trust about what's making you feel anxious could be a relief. It may be that just having someone listen to you and show they care can help in itself. If you aren't 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

Anxiety can make it really hard to stop worrying. You might have worries you can't 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 haven't forgotten to think about them. Some people find it helps to set a timer
  • Write down your worries and keep them in a particular place – for example, you could write them in a notebook, or on pieces of paper you put in an envelope or jar
Try breathing exercises

Breathing exercises can help you cope and feel more in control. You can find some suggestions on our page on relaxation and mindfulness.

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. See our page on food and mood for more information.
  • Try to do some physical activity. Exercise can be really helpful for your mental wellbeing. See our pages on physical wellbeing for more information.
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's going well. Living with anxiety can mean you think a lot about things that worry you or are hard to do. It's important to be kind to yourself and notice the good things too.

Peer support

Peer support brings together people who've 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.

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