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Anxiety disorder

Last updated Friday, 18th Mar 2016

We all have times when we feel anxious and worried. It is quite usual for people to feel tense or concerned when facing a potentially stressful situation. It is when these feelings of anxiety do not go away and interfere with everyday life, that people might be regarded as having a problem with anxiety or an anxiety disorder.

Types of anxiety disorder

There are several conditions for which anxiety is the main symptom:

  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • panic disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
  • specific phobias
  • separation anxiety disorder.

I felt constantly on edge, worried that something terrible was going to happen – and yet I couldn’t understand why or stop the feelings from happening.’

What causes problems with anxiety?

A number of things can trigger an anxious response. Sometimes people feel anxious about events they cannot control or worry that bad things might happen. Some people find they become anxious about coming up against situations which caused them upset in the past, perhaps because they are worried it will lead to them feeling upset or out of control again. Some people learned during their childhood to respond anxiously to situations. Research also indicates that people may inherit a tendency to be more anxious.

Some people believe it can often be a mixture of the type of person that you are, your childhood experiences and your current circumstances which combine and make you more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder. On a day-to-day basis, caffeine, excess sugar, poor diet, drug misuse, exhaustion, stress and the side effects of certain medication can also cause anxiety.

After a while, people can start to fear the symptoms of anxiety, especially feeling out of control. This sets up a vicious circle. They feel anxious because they dread feeling the symptoms of anxiety, and then they experience those symptoms because they are having anxious thoughts.

Who is affected by anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds. It is estimated that about 1 in 50 people will experience a problem with anxiety during their lives.

What are the signs or symptoms of anxiety disorders?

Anxiety affects different people in different ways. It can affect your body, your moods, emotions, feelings and thoughts. Feeling anxious affects you emotionally and can also have an effect upon your body. Different people will experience anxiety in different ways. The signs or symptoms can include:

Moods, emotions and feelings

  • feeling worried or uneasy much of the time
  • having difficulty sleeping and/or waking up early
  • feeling tired
  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • being irritable or quick to get angry
  • feeling that you have no control over your actions
  • feeling detached from your surroundings


  • fast heart rate
  • breathing faster
  • irregular heart beats – known as palpitations
  • feeling sick
  • chest pains
  • headaches
  • dry mouth
  • sweating

The physical symptoms are usually as a result of your brain sending out multiple messages to various parts of your body when you're feeling anxious. These messages tend to make your heart and lungs work faster.

Self-assessment questionnaires

There are a number of questionnaires which have been designed to help people decide whether or not they have a problem with anxiety. These are available on the internet free of charge. They will not confirm if you have a diagnosis of a form of anxiety. Some people find it helpful to work through these questionnaires when considering their own symptoms – before going to see their GP for example.

What should I do if I think I have an anxiety disorder?

If you have been feeling worried and on edge and these feelings have not gone away – and are interfering with your daily life, it may be a sign that you have a problem with anxiety. In the first instance you could go and see your GP. You may want to tell him or her how you have been feeling and what impact this is having on your life – and those around you.

Why can’t I just ‘pull myself together’?

It is important to remember that anxiety disorder is a mental health issue that can affect anyone in their lifetime. It is not a sign of weakness or failure and you cannot be expected to just snap out of it. People should not be made to feel ashamed. Anxiety disorders can be treated if you seek help.

What can help with anxiety disorders?

Most people who seek help with their anxiety disorders, recover well. There are many things that can help you with your anxiety. These include:

  • psychological therapies such as psychotherapy, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and relationship or family therapy. There is more information about this type of help in the psychological therapies section of this website. 
  • computerised self-help programmes which are available on the internet. Some of these are free and others can be paid for privately or prescribed by your GP.
  • getting support and sharing experiences with other people who experience problems with anxiety.
  • learning as much as possible about the condition and how it affects you. It can be useful to do this together with family members and others who are involved in supporting you. There are a number of useful books and websites which provide information and support.
  • looking after yourself and trying to lead a healthy lifestyle by eating well, keeping active and getting enough sleep.
  • finding ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life and trying to avoid the things which might make you feel more depressed.
  • making changes to your life to increase your sense of wellbeing.
  • medicines (also known as medication or prescribed drugs) may help you become more in control of your anxiety and enable you to make better use of psychological therapies. However, some people feel that medication does not help them deal with their anxiety issues.
  • hypnotherapy - for more information about this have a look at the Hypnotherapy Directory. Providing information about what hypnotherapy is and how it can help.

There is more information about medicines that can help with anxiety on the websites of the national mental health charities, Mind and Rethink, and further useful information in Mind’s guide to Understanding Anxiety.

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