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 include things like:
- physical or emotional abuse
- 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
- being abused, bullied or harassed, including experiencing racism
Physical or mental health problems
Other health problems can sometimes cause anxiety or might make it worse. For example:
- physical health problems – living with a serious, ongoing or life-threatening physical health condition can sometimes trigger anxiety
- other mental health problems – it's also common to develop anxiety while 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
- 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 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 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.