How does anxiety feel?
When you are anxious, you may feel worried or stressed about the future. You may also:
- have difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- feel tired
- feel irritable
- have trouble concentrating
There are a lot of different ways that people can experience anxiety. The feelings can also either be about something in particular or about life much more generally. Some people who experience anxiety also have depression.
There can also be physical changes to your body when you become anxious. This happens when your body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone that historically has helped us to ‘fight or flight’ – to either fend off danger or run away from it. In the modern world, adrenaline is more likely to be produced in situations where, although you feel anxious, you are not actually in physical danger.
The physical symptoms of anxiety can include:
- a racing heartbeat (palpitations)
- tension in your muscles, which may be painful
- stomach cramps
- feeling sick
- shortness of breath or breathing quickly
- dizziness or feeling faint
- needing to go to the toilet more often than usual
- trembling or shaking
- a headache
- numb or tingling fingers, toes or lips
These symptoms may also be caused by problems with your physical health. So if you have any of the symptoms above, contact your GP for advice.
There are various changes you can make to your life to help reduce your feelings of anxiety.
- Physical activity – when you exercise, your brain releases hormones called endorphins, which can improve how you feel.
- Having less caffeine – having too much caffeine can cause or increase feelings of anxiety.
- Eating a healthy diet – not eating or drinking enough can make us feel tired and worn down, which makes it easier for us to feel anxious. Getting the right vitamins and minerals in your diet also helps to keep your brain and gut healthy, both of which can be linked to your mental health.
- Relaxation techniques – meditating or practising mindfulness may help you control your thoughts and feel calmer.
- Reading self-help books – these are often based on the same principles as counselling.
- Talking to friends or relatives – sharing your worries with someone close to you can help you to feel understood.
If simple measures like these don’t make a difference, speak to your GP for more advice. Your GP may be able to refer you for psychological therapies or counselling. In some cases they may recommend taking medication for a short time.
There are also organisations that can give you advice or support. Try the ones listed in the other helpful websites section below, or ask your GP about services in your local area.
Anxiety can become a mental health problem when it:
- doesn’t go away
- has a very strong mental or physical effect on you
- happens regularly, perhaps without an obvious reason
- affects your everyday life – for example, your ability to do your job or socialise
- prevents you doing things, or makes you avoid situations, that others find manageable
If any of these apply to you, see your GP. They will ask you some questions to try to find out what is causing the anxiety.
Your GP may diagnose you with a particular anxiety disorder. Some of these are described below. Not everyone who experiences anxiety will have one of these disorders, but it’s good to know about them in case they fit with what you’re going through.
A phobia is when you have a fear that’s out of proportion to any real danger. If a phobia interferes with your everyday life, it’s considered to be an anxiety disorder. There are many different types of phobia.
- Specific or ‘simple’ phobias are ones that are caused by a particular thing. Common ones include fears of flying, enclosed spaces, spiders, or going to the dentist.
- Social phobia is the fear of being judged by others, which leads you to avoid social situations. It’s stronger than just feeling shy around other people.
- Agoraphobia is the fear of being away from home, which leads you to stop leaving your home.
Generalised anxiety disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder is when you feel worried most of the time about things that might go wrong and you can’t control these feelings. These symptoms last a long time (at least six months) and can have a significant impact on your life.
If you have panic disorder, you can suddenly have intense periods of fear known as panic attacks. You may find that something triggers these, or they may develop for no apparent reason. Panic attacks usually reach their peak within 10 minutes and can last between 20 and 30 minutes.
Other disorders related to anxiety
There are certain other conditions that overlap with anxiety. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where you may have repeated obsessions or compulsions that make you feel anxious. Another related condition is post-traumatic stress disorder. You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder if you have been through a traumatic event.
Mind The charity Mind has information to support people with a mental health condition and those who care for them. As with many of their other topics, their content about anxiety disorders has quotes from people coping with the anxiety or panic attacks, and a video of people talking about their experiences. Mental Health Foundation The Mental Health Foundation is a charity that carries out research and offers information about many areas of mental health. It also has podcasts about overcoming anxiety and mindfulness. Rethink This charity has support groups, runs campaigns and can direct you to local mental health services, as well as providing information. This factsheet that you can download has comprehensive information about the different types of depression and directs to other, more specific guidance. Headspace This tool describes itself as gym membership for your mind using meditation and mindfulness techniques. You can start off with free introduction to meditation and then choose to pay for access to more exercises covering a range of topics. You can use it on your phone or computer, depending on what suits you best. Big White Wall This online, anonymous community provides a secure environment for you to seek help if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or down about anything. You can share stories to get and give advice, find information and do courses to understand better how you’re feeling and make positive change. And trained professionals keep an eye on things 24 hours a day to make sure everyone stays safe and supported. Be Mindful Online
This website-based mindfulness programme is made up of ten 30-minute modules for you to do at your own pace. It teaches mindfulness techniques to help you manage stress or simply to try to live a happier, healthier life. The programme uses audio clips, text-based information and a library of resources and exercises, and you can track your progress as you go along.
- Anxiety, Panic and Phobias. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, last updated September 2015
- Understanding the stress response. Harvard Medical School. www.health.harvard.edu, last updated March 2016
- Mental health. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
- Let's get physical: the impact of physical activity on wellbeing. Mental Health Foundation, 2013. www.mentalhealth.org.uk
- Winston AP, Hardwick E, Jaberi N. Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine. Adv Psychiatr Treat 2005; 11(6):432–39. doi:10.1192/apt.11.6.432
- Food and mood. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, last updated April 2015
- Manzoni GM, Pagnini F, Castelnuovo G, et al. Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry 2008; 8(41). doi:10.1186/1471-244X-8–41
- Strategies to manage patients with dental anxiety and dental phobia: literature review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dent 2016; 8:35–50. doi:10.2147/CCIDE.S63626
- BMJ Best Practice. Generalised anxiety disorder. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated March 2017
- Anxiety and stress-related disorders. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published March 2013
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summary. cks.nice.org, last revised July 2013
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summary. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised June 2013
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Reviewed by Graham Pembrey, Lead Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, September 2017 Expert reviewer, Dr Rahul Bhattacharya, Consultant Psychiatrist Next review due September 2020
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