Anxiety disorders

We all get anxious when faced with stressful situations, such as an interview, or when we have a long-term illness. It's also normal to feel anxious when you face something difficult or dangerous. Anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response — a biological reaction.

But if your feelings of anxiety are so severe, or happen so often, that they start to interfere with your everyday life, then you may have an anxiety disorder.

As many as a quarter of people get an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, but many don't seek the treatment that's available.

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Are there different types of anxiety disorder?

Lots of mental health problems are classified as anxiety disorders. Here are the main types:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalised anxiety disorder is diagnosed when you feel worried most of the time 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.
  • Phobias. 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, then it's considered to be an anxiety disorder.
  • Panic disorder. If you have panic disorder, you’ll suddenly have intense periods of fear known as panic attacks. You may find that something triggers your panic attacks, or they may develop for no apparent reason.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may have intrusive thoughts, images, worries or urges (obsessions) that make you feel anxious or uncomfortable. You will perform compulsions (actions, rituals or ways of thinking) to reduce the feelings of anxiety or discomfort caused by the obsessions. Compulsions usually only give short-term relief. Read more about OCD here.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may develop PTSD if you have been involved in (or witnessed) a traumatic event. Symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, which may come and go, recurring thoughts, memories, images, dreams or distressing 'flashbacks' of the trauma. It may develop weeks, months or even years after the event.

How does it feel to have an anxiety disorder?

If you have an anxiety disorder (or just feel anxious a lot) you may experience these feelings and sensations.

Psychological (mental) symptoms:

  • feeling anxious, nervous and on edge
  • feeling as if your mind is really busy with thoughts
  • going over the same thing in your head again and again (rumination)
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • feeling tired
  • feeling restless
  • feeling irritable
  • trouble concentrating
  • feeling out of control, or detached from your surroundings

Physical symptoms:

  • a rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • tension in your muscles, which may be painful
  • stomach cramps
  • feeling sick
  • diarrhoea
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or feeling faint
  • indigestion
  • needing to go to the toilet more often than usual
  • trembling or shaking
  • sweating
  • a headache
  • numb or tingling fingers, toes or lips

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than anxiety disorders so it’s worth talking to your GP for advice.

What causes anxiety disorders?

Sometimes they may not have an obvious cause – or they may be caused by a combination of factors. You may be more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if you:

They are:

  • go through a stressful, life-changing event such as a bereavement, or witness something traumatic
  • have another mental health condition, such as depression.
  • are dependent on alcohol
  • have a physical illness, such as a thyroid disorder
  • take illegal substances such as amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy

Some people seem to be born with a tendency to be more anxious than others. This means it may be possible to inherit anxiety disorders. Equally, people who aren’t naturally anxious can become so if they are put under intense pressure.

What treatments are available for anxiety disorders?

There are a number of different treatments available for anxiety disorders. Different treatments will be right for different people.

  • Self-help – for example, self help books, relaxation, exercise and peer support.
  • Talking therapies – usually cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
  • Medication – usually antidepressants, beta-blockers or benzodiazepines.

For more information on treatments, see our information on common treatments and support. We also have more detailed information on anxiety disorders.

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  • Produced by Clare Foster, freelance health editor, and Nick Ridgman, Head of Health Content, Bupa UK, September 2017
    Next review due September 2020

    Bupa UK expert reviewers:

    • Naomi Humber, Psychology Services Manager, EAP
    • Stuart Haydock, Resilience Lead, Health Clinics
    • Sarah Deedat, Head of Behaviour Change

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