I'm worrying and feeling anxious
Everyone worries and feels anxious from time to time, especially when experiencing a big event or challenging situation. We have all felt our throat go dry, stomach churn and heart beat quicker when facing, for example, a job interview or exam.
If under control, feeling a little anxious can help us be alert and focused at times, like these, when we need to perform at our best. It can become a problem, however, when it happens too often, goes on for too long or affects our day-to-day life.
What you will learn in this section:
Why do we feel anxious?
Have you ever been woken in the night by a noise and sat bolt upright with your heart pounding, ready to react to a possible danger? If you'd woken up feeling relaxed, you wouldn't have been prepared to cope with the threat you might be about to face.
Anxiety is part of a primitive human response known as 'Flight or fight' which helps us deal with sudden or short-term dangers. It evolved millions of years ago when early humans often met life-threatening dangers. Faced with a saber-toothed tiger being able to run away or fight was then vital to our survival.
The response is triggered as soon as the brain becomes aware of a threat. Hormones called adrenaline and cortisol are then released into the bloodstream, increasing blood pressure to help us react quickly and create more energy for running. They also shut down the digestive, immune and reproductive systems which are not necessary during a life or death situation.
The body then goes through a number of changes to get ready to either run away or fight. Download the 'Flight or fight' sheet to find out what happens to the body during the response.
These physical changes can affect how we behave and can affect our health - a person experiencing the response may:
- Find it difficult to either relax or concentrate on anything but the supposed danger.
- Appear more aggressive or impulsive.
- Over-react, start looking for 'threats' or hidden dangers or feel 'under attack'.
- Breathe deeper or shallower and feel light-headed.
- Have difficulty sleeping and notice a decrease in sex drive.
- Find it more difficult to take in or remember information.
- Pick up more colds and infections and be more likely to develop long-term health problems like heart disease.
- Drink more alcohol to try to relax.
We may no longer face the threat posed by wild animals but this response can still be life-saving when meeting real dangers like, for example, stepping in front of a speeding car.
Nowadays causes of anxiety are not usually not life-threatening, however, and are more likely to be things like:
- Getting stuck in a traffic jam.
- Catching a rush-hour train.
- Walking through a crowded shopping centre.
- Meeting a work deadline.
Unfortunately, these everyday situations can trigger the same automatic response and we react as if we are in real physical danger.
When can anxiety become a problem?
It is natural to feel a little anxious from time to time. Anxiety can become a problem, however, when:
- We feel anxious too often or for too long.
- It affects our day-to-day life.
- It stops us doing things we want to do.
- If we worry too much about things that shouldn't give any real concern.
If the 'Fight or fight' response is triggered too often or for long periods of time it can have a big impact on how we think, feel and behave. If someone gets 'stuck' in this state of high alert they can feel as if they are under constant attack, have problems concentrating, sleeping and relaxing and may avoid situations or activities that make them feel particularly anxious. Experiencing one anxious thought after another can also make it difficult to see life with a positive attitude or simply enjoy life in the moment.
Anxiety can have physical effects, as well, including headaches, sickness, diarrhoea, panic attacks and hyperventilation (rapid breathing). It can also increase the risk of picking up colds and infections and of experiencing problems like high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome.
What is an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety is the main symptom of a number of conditions or 'disorders':
GAD is a long-term anxiety disorder which involves constantly worrying about all kinds of life events and everyday situations, hence the name “generalised". People with this disorder can feel overwhelmed by fears about things that are unlikely to happen and can feel tense and nervous all day long.
Social anxiety (social phobia)
People with social anxiety experience fear about social situations and can worry constantly about what other people think about them. Social anxiety is very common and can have a big impact on a person's day-to-day life.
People with health anxiety worry constantly about their health. This worry becomes overwhelming and can cause great distress. Some people with this disorder have a medical condition which they worry about. Others worry about certain symptoms which they fear are a sign of ill health or others worry about conditions they might get in the future.
People with panic disorder experience sudden and very intense responses to fear, known as panic attacks. Panic attacks can happen in situations that cause the person overwhelming feelings of terror or may happen suddenly for no particular reason.
PTSD is a disorder which can effect some people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic and frightening event. People with PTSD may re-live the experience through flashbacks or dreams, have difficulty sleeping and experience panic or distress. PTSD can develop immediately after the event or weeks, months or even years later.
A phobia is a fear of a specific thing. This can be a situation, place, object, feeling, place or animal. Common phobias include a fear of:
- Birds or spiders.
- Travelling in lifts.
- Visiting the dentist or having an injection.
- Going out into a social place like a supermarket (known as Agoraphobia).
People with a phobia have an overwhelming fear about this situation or object which can cause them intense distress or feelings of panic. This can lead them to avoid the thing causing them this fear making their anxiety even greater.
OCD is a disorder where people perform repetitive actions (compulsions) to relieve the anxiety caused by certain negative thoughts, worries or doubts which repeatedly appear (obsessions). Compulsions can be things like washing hands, checking a door is locked or cleaning the house. A person with OCD may repeatedly perform these activities in order to stop certain things they fear from happening.
Find out more about anxiety disorders in Who can help and support me?
Are some people more likely to experience anxiety?
Whilst everyone feels anxious from time to time, certain factors can make it more likely for some people to experience anxiety which is more severe and goes on for longer:
- Stressful life events - such as bereavement, a relationship breakdown, ill health, redundancy or having a baby, particularly when events happen at the same time.
- Difficult problems at home - people who live with money, family and relationship difficulties or feel threatened or afraid at home.
- Early experiences (particularly under the age of three) - children who experience fear of danger more often, don't feel protected or encouraged or who experience disruption like illness, their parents' separation or moving schools - are more likely to feel anxiety as adults. A child who sees a parent constantly worrying may learn that behaviour and worry more as an adult.
- A traumatic life experience - when someone is exposed to a life-threatening danger (especially during childhood) or experiences like hate crime or bullying.
- Personality types - people who are highly intelligent, analytical and thoughtful, for example, or people who are naturally more cautious may be more likely to experience anxiety.
- Stressful lifestyles - people who work under a lot of pressure for long hours or work in hostile work places.
- A particular life experience can lead to a fear of the experience happening again.
- Genetic factors - some people may inherit a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Some symptoms of anxiety or low mood can have an underlying physical health cause including problems like thyroid dysfunction, too little or too much calcium, severe vitamin B12 deficiency and severe anaemia. They can also be part of another issue such as depression or psychosis.
Is it possible to experience both anxiety and depression?
It is quite common, for example, to experience anxiety and depression at the same time. Feeling low or depressed can make someone feel more anxious and worry more; and experiencing anxiety or stress can sometimes lead to feeling low or depressed.
Everyone is different – explore more areas of this section to help you understand more fully why you may be feeling unwell.
What can I do to help myself?
Find out how you can start to tackle anxiety and learn helpful tools and techniques which can help you feel better soon.
How could IAPT help me?
Leeds Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) supports people experiencing common mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression. Leeds IAPT is run by Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust and provides assessments and a range of talking treatments.
When do I need to talk to my GP?
It is normal to feel low or have feelings of anxiety from time to time particularly when experiencing a life change or big event.
If you have been feeling low or very anxious and this is having an impact on your day-to-day life, you should consider going to see your GP.
Read more about when you should talk to your GP and how to prepare for a GP appointment.
Leeds Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) - you can self-refer to IAPT who support people with common mental health problems like anxiety and stress.
Local peer support group - Anxiety Leeds
Leeds Mind Peer support - offer range of support groups, workshops and courses.
Anxiety UK - a national charity which supports people with agoraphobia and other anxiety disorders and phobias.
Find a counsellor.
Tools and apps
NHS Choices Moodzone - an online resource with useful information, interactive tools, and videos to support you on your way to feeling better.
Silver Cloud - a safe and secure online space offering personalised programmes to help people experiencing a range of mental problems (available via self-referral to Improving Access to Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT).
Living Life to the Full - self-help resources and learning sessions that can help you feel better.