What is an anxiety disorder?

Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK
10 October 2016
Man sleeping on couch

What is anxiety?

We all get anxious from time to time. It’s a normal, biological reaction when we’re faced with stressful or difficult situations, such as a job interview, going to hospital or moving house. It’s understandable to feel anxious in these situations; and it can even be positive and useful, particularly if you work better under pressure. Normally though, you stop feeling anxious when the situation has passed or you’ve got used to it.

However, if you’re regularly feeling anxious, or if your feelings of anxiety are out of proportion to the situation, it’s a sign that it may be becoming more of a problem.

An anxiety disorder is when your feelings of anxiety are so severe or happen so often that they start to interfere with your everyday life. If these feelings go on for a long time, it can start to lead to other mental health problems too, like depression.

Who gets anxiety disorders?

It’s thought that around one in four people may get an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. But it’s hard to know for certain as many people won’t see their doctor or get treated for it.

Some of us just seem to be born with a tendency to be more anxious than others. You might be the type of person who tends to worry more. But there may be other factors that make you more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, for instance, if:

  • you work long hours or are under lots of pressure, either at work or home
  • you have a long-term health condition, such as a thyroid disorder
  • you have another mental health condition, such as depression
  • you have had something traumatic happen in your past
  • you take certain medications, or illegal drugs

Symptoms of anxiety disorders

If you have an anxiety disorder, you may feel like you’re worrying all the time, or about things that aren’t likely to happen. Your feelings of anxiety may be so strong that it can be overwhelming.

Anxiety disorders can also cause a range of other psychological and physical symptoms, which you may not have even realised could be due to your anxiety.

Psychological symptoms may include:

  • feeling restless, nervous or on edge
  • feeling irritable
  • having trouble concentrating
  • having a feeling of dread, or fearing the worst
  • dwelling on negative thoughts or over-thinking situations

Physical symptoms can include:

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

You may also be having difficulty sleeping and feel tired a lot of the time. You may not have all these symptoms if you have an anxiety disorder, and it’s also possible that your symptoms may be down to something else. What’s important is that you recognise when anxiety might be becoming a problem for you. That way, you can learn how to manage it or seek help from a professional if you need to.

Anxiety in the UK infographic 

Pablo Vandenabeele
Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK

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