Your health expert: Dr Liz Russell, consultant psychiatrist
Content editor review by Victoria Goldman, July 2022
Next review due July 2025

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, unease or worry about something that may happen in the future. If your anxiety lasts a long time and is severe, it can interfere with your everyday life. It can also affect your mental and physical health.

If you need help now

This page is designed to provide general health information. If you need help now, please use the following services.

  • Samaritans. 116 123 (UK and ROI) - This helpline is free for you to call and talk to someone.
  • NHS Services has a list of where to get urgent help for mental health.
  • Mind website. Click the ‘Get help now’ button on the page. This is a tool that is designed to help you understand what’s happening to you and how you can help yourself.

If you think you might harm yourself or are worried someone else might come to immediate harm, call the emergency services on 999 or go to your local accident and emergency department.

How does anxiety feel?

Everyone experiences anxiety differently. When you’re anxious, you may feel worried or stressed about something particular or about life in general. You may also:

  • have difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • feel tired
  • feel irritable
  • feel tense or on edge
  • have trouble concentrating

Some people who get anxiety also have depression.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms too. You may have:

  • a racing heartbeat (palpitations)
  • muscle tension and regular headaches
  • stomach cramps, diarrhoea and feeling or being sick
  • tight chest, shortness of breath or fast breathing
  • dizziness or a faint feeling, trembling or shaking
  • sweating
  • numb or tingling fingers, toes or lips
  • a dry mouth
  • needing to pee more often than usual

These symptoms may also be caused by problems with your physical health. If you have these symptoms, contact your GP.

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 so you find it harder to work or socialise
  • stops you doing things or makes you avoid situations that other people cope with more easily

Common causes of anxiety

When your body feels under threat, it releases adrenaline and other hormones such as cortisol. Adrenaline helps to protect you from danger – it’s part of your ‘fight or flight’ response. It gets your body ready to either fend off danger or run away from it. Your body releases adrenaline whenever you’re anxious or stressed about something, even if you’re not in any physical danger.

It’s normal to feel anxious when you face something difficult or out of your comfort zone. It's also normal to get anxious when faced with a stressful situation such as being out of work.

Mild anxiety can be positive and useful. It can help you stay alert and perform well when you do important tasks. But when anxiety gets worse, it can stop you doing your usual activities.

There are many reasons why people have anxiety. Some things that may make you anxious include:

  • relationship problems
  • bereavement
  • pressure at work
  • money problems
  • housing problems
  • climate change and environmental disasters
  • coping with changes in your physical health

Types of anxiety disorders

Your GP may diagnose you with a particular anxiety disorder. Not everyone who gets anxiety will have a specific disorder. 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 caused by something in particular. You may have a fear of flying or enclosed spaces or spiders.
  • Social phobia (social anxiety disorder) is when you fear being judged by other people. It’s stronger than just feeling shy around other people. You may avoid social situations, speaking in front of a group or even calling someone on the phone.
  • If you have agoraphobia, you may worry about visiting crowded places and travelling on public transport. You may stay at home where you feel safe instead.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalised anxiety disorder is when you feel worried most of the time about things that could go wrong. You can’t control these feelings. These symptoms last a long time (at least six months). They can have a significant impact on your life.

Panic disorder

If you have panic disorder, you get sudden intense periods of fear. These episodes are called panic attacks. Not everyone who gets panic attacks has panic disorder. If you have panic disorder, you also have a constant fear of having more panic attacks.

Everyone experiences a panic attack differently. A panic attack can cause both physical and mental symptoms. During a panic attack, you get intense feelings of anxiety. You may also feel like you’re choking or find it hard to swallow or feel detached from reality. For more information, see our section: How does anxiety feel? Sometimes these symptoms can be so intense that you think you’re having a heart attack. It’s important to remember that although these symptoms are upsetting, they aren’t dangerous. Panic attacks are unlikely to cause any lasting physical harm.

Learning how to recognise and deal with a panic attack can help you keep them under control. You may find talking therapies or counselling help. If you regularly have panic attacks, your GP may recommend medicines such as antidepressants or another medicine to boost your mood. Finding ways to feel less anxious in everyday life may help to prevent panic attacks too.

Other disorders related to anxiety

If you have anxiety, you may also have other mental health conditions.

You may have symptoms of anxiety with other mental health conditions such as:

Alcohol and substance misuse can cause anxiety. Drinking alcohol can feel relaxing and calming at first. You may even feel like alcohol relieves your anxiety. But after a while, drinking alcohol may make your anxiety worse. If you stop drinking alcohol and get withdrawal symptoms, this can cause anxiety as well.

Anxiety-like symptoms may be caused by some medical conditions such as thyroid problems, anaemia, asthma and heart problems. These symptoms can also be caused by taking medicines such as corticosteroids or some illegal drugs such as cocaine.

Reducing anxiety

You can make lots of changes to your life to help reduce your feelings of anxiety.

Do some physical activity

Getting some exercise may reduce your anxiety levels. When you exercise, your brain releases hormones called endorphins. These hormones can boost your mood.

Eat a healthy diet

Make sure you eat and drink often enough throughout the day. Otherwise, you may feel tired, dehydrated and worn down. This can make you more likely to feel anxious. Healthy foods can boost your mood so make sure you eat a healthy diet.

Having too much caffeine may cause or increase feelings of anxiety. So, if you drink tea or coffee, try switching to decaffeinated versions. Energy drinks can also contain a lot of caffeine.

Cutting down how much alcohol you drink can help.

Relaxation techniques

Staying relaxed may help you control your thoughts and feel calmer. You could try:

  • progressive relaxation
  • meditation
  • breathing exercises
  • mindfulness

Getting enough sleep

Not getting enough sleep can make you feel anxious. There are lots of things you can try to help you sleep better. These include:

  • going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • avoiding having caffeine after 3 pm
  • making sure your bed and bedroom are comfortable
  • learning to relax before you go to bed by writing down your worries

Read self-help books

Self-help books are often based on the same principles as counselling, so you may find these helpful. But it’s worth remembering that these books can vary in quality. Try to get recommendations from someone you trust, such as a healthcare professional. Another option is the website Reading Well, which is supported by charities and professional bodies and gives self-help book recommendations.

Talk to friends or relatives

Sharing your worries with someone close to you can help you to feel understood.

Help from your GP and support organisations

If simple measures like these don’t make a difference, speak to your GP for more advice.

Your GP may:

  • refer you for talking therapies, including counselling or psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • recommend taking anxiety medicines

Specific charities and organisations may be able to give you advice or support. See our section on other helpful websites or ask your GP about services in your local area.

Looking for support with anxiety?

We’re committed to helping people improve their mental health, which is why we’ve created lots of useful information about mental health and wellbeing. Anyone can use it, even if you don't have health insurance with us.

To enquire about health insurance for future conditions, call us on 0808 115 6779

You may worry a lot about the future. This can make you feel very tired and irritable and stop you sleeping properly. But everyone experiences anxiety differently. For more information, see our section: How does anxiety feel?

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms. You may have a racing heart (palpitations), aches and pains and sweating, and feel sick or dizzy. But there are lots of other symptoms too. For more information, see our section: How does anxiety feel?

There are lots of things you can do to deal with anxiety – for example, getting plenty of exercise, cutting out caffeine and making more time to relax. Counselling may help – your GP may be able to refer you. For more information, see our section: Reducing anxiety.

More on this topic

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