I'm feeling anxious
Everyone worries and feels a little anxiety from time to time, especially when experiencing a big life event or a 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 starts to affect our day-to-day life. This section can help you to understand more about anxiety, explore different self-help techniques, and help you to find the right support services in Leeds.
What you will learn in this section:
- Why do we feel anxious?
- What can cause anxiety?
- What can keep anxiety going?
- When can anxiety become a problem?
- What is an anxiety disorder?
- Is it possible to experience both anxiety and depression?
- What can I do to help myself?
- How could Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service help me?
- When do I need to talk to my GP?
- Find support
Why do we feel anxious?
Have you ever been woken in the night by a noise and sat bolt upright, fully alert 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. Bodily systems which are not essential during a life or death situation including the digestive, immune and reproductive systems are less active.
Download the 'Flight or fight' sheet to find out what happens to the body during the response as it goes through a number of changes to get ready to either run away or fight. Or watch our 'Flight or fight' animation.
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 the same threat response is still part of our bodily make-up. It can still be life-saving when meeting real dangers like, for example, stepping in front of a speeding car. Nowadays, however, causes of anxiety are not usually life-threatening and are more likely to be stressful or challenging situations, like these:
- Getting stuck in a traffic jam.
- Catching a rush-hour train.
- An exam or job interview.
- Walking through a crowded shopping centre.
- Running late for an important appointment.
- 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.
What can cause anxiety?
While everyone will feel anxious from time to time, there are many reasons why someone might experience anxiety which is more severe and goes on for longer:
- Stressful life events - such as bereavement, relationship problems, ill health, losing your job, working under pressure for long hours, money worries or having a baby, particularly when events happen at the same time or are ongoing for a number of years.
- Personality types - some people who are naturally more cautious, analytical or thoughtful, for example, may be more likely to worry and experience anxiety.
- A traumatic or difficult life experience - when someone experiences a life-threatening or frightening danger (especially during childhood) or experiences like bullying or harassment.
- 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.
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.
What can keep anxiety going?
We can all feel a little anxious from time to time but sometimes it can continue and become a longer term problem. There are many causes of anxiety. Some people may be more cautious and worry more and this can become habit. While some people may go through difficult life events which may lead them to feel more anxious or worry more about bad things happening.
A Vicious cycle can develop which can keep the anxiety going. Someone having anxious thoughts in a certain situation can mistake the unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety as evidence that something terrible really is happening and this can make them feel more anxious and make the symptoms even worse. They may start to expect and fear that they will feel these symptoms in certain situations. And this actually helps to trigger the symptoms that they feared they would experience.
Download this Vicious cycle sheet which shows how our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviours are all connected:
This model (used in a therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) shows how having negative thoughts about a certain situation (in this case a work presentation) can affect how we feel and how we perform as well.
You can use this blank version to look at how having anxious thoughts in certain situations may be affecting your feelings and behaviours.
Safety behaviours and avoidance
Feeling anxious can be very unpleasant. It's only natural to want to find ways of coping. Safety behaviours are things you might do to feel safer and reduce your anxiety such as carrying medication with you at all times or sitting near the exit. Some people can also start avoiding or wanting to escape from situations which make them feel anxious like being in a crowded place or travelling on the bus. This is called avoidance.
While safety behaviours (and avoidance) may reduce the discomfort you might be feeling, right now, you can become dependent on them and start to believe that you can't do certain things without them.
And what's more, they can make you believe even more strongly that certain situations are putting you in actual danger. So that the next time you need to try and face the same situation the anxiety continues…
This Vicious cycle about a certain situation (a job interview) shows how safety behaviours can lead to wanting to avoid situations. This cycle of worrying can start to affect someone's self-confidence and make them feel even more anxious in future.
You can use this blank Vicious cycle to take a look at how anxiety is affecting you.
Go to the MindWell self-help section for anxiety to find ways to break through the Vicious cycle.
When can anxiety become a problem?
It's 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':
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
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 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 symptoms can build up quite suddenly in situations that cause the person overwhelming feelings of terror.This can happen even though there may not be an immediate danger in reality.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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.
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 Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service help me?
Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service provides support and psychological therapies for common mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety, low moods and depression. The service can offer workshops, a range of online support options, face-to-face sessions and group classes such as Stress Control Classes.
If you are over 17 years of age, registered with a Leeds GP, you can self-refer on the service website. A number of questions will pop-up - these are to make sure you are being directed to the right service. You don't need to see your GP to access this service although your GP will be updated about your treatment.
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.
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
Living Life to the Full - self-help resources and learning sessions that can help you feel better.