What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a word we use to describe feelings of unease, worry and fear. It incorporates both the emotions and the physical sensations we might experience when we are worried or nervous about something. Although we usually find it unpleasant, anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response – our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened (see ‘What is the ‘fight or flight’ response?’).

We all know what it is like to feel anxious from time to time. It is common to feel tense, nervous and perhaps fearful at the thought of a stressful event or decision you’re facing – especially if it could have a big impact on your life. For example:

  • Sitting an exam
  • Going into hospital
  • Attending an interview
  • Starting a new job
  • Moving away from home
  • Having a baby
  • Being diagnosed with an illness
  • Deciding to get married or divorced

In situations like these, it is understandable to have worries about how you will perform, or what the outcome will be. For a brief period you might even find it hard to sleep, eat or concentrate. Then usually, after a short while or when the situation has passed, the feelings of worry stop.

When does anxiety become a mental health problem?

Because anxiety is a normal human experience, it is sometimes hard to know when it is becoming a problem for you – but if your feelings of anxiety are very strong, or last for a long time, it can be overwhelming.

For example:

  • You might find that you are worrying all the time, perhaps about things that are a regular part of everyday life, or about things that are not likely to happen – or even worrying about worrying.
  • You might regularly experience unpleasant physical and psychological effects of anxiety (see ‘What are the symptoms of anxiety?’), and maybe panic attacks (see ‘What is a panic attack?’).
  • Depending on the kind of problems you experience, you might be given a diagnosis of a specific anxiety disorder (see ‘What anxiety disorders are there?’).

What is the ‘fight or flight’ response?

Like all other animals, human beings have evolved ways to help us protect ourselves from dangerous, life-threatening situations. When you feel under threat your body releases hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which help physically prepare you to either fight the danger or run away from it. These hormones can:

  • Make you feel more alert, so you can act faster
  • Make your heart beat faster to carry blood quickly to where it is needed most

Then when you feel the danger has passed, your body releases other hormones to help your muscles relax, which may cause you to shake. This is commonly called the ‘fight or flight’ response – it is something that happens automatically in our bodies and we have no control over it. In modern society we do not usually face situations where we need to physically fight or flee from danger, but our biological response to feeling threatened is still the same.

“Going out of the house is a challenge because I [have a] fear of panicking and feel that I’m being watched or judged. It’s just horrible. I want to get help but I’m afraid of being judged”. 

If anxiety is affecting your ability to live your life the way you would like to, it is worth thinking about ways to help yourself (see ‘How can I help myself manage anxiety?’), and what kind of treatments are available (see ‘What treatment can I get for anxiety?’).

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