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Anxiety is a feeling of unease, like fear or worry. It can be mild or severe. Learn more about its symptoms, causes and the types of anxiety disorders.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is something we all feel when we're worried, tense or fearful. Everyone gets anxious from time to time, for example, going for a job interview or taking an exam. But if anxiety is severe and affects your daily life or leads to panic attacks, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety symptoms

Everyone feels anxiety differently. Understandably for lots of people, one of your first questions might be what are the symptoms of anxiety? The symptoms can be both psychological and physical.

Psychological symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of panic or fear

  • Feeling tense, nervous and always on edge

  • Racing thoughts you can't control

  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Having nightmares

  • Feeling disconnected, like you're out of touch with reality

  • Changes in appetite

Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Sweating or hot flushes

  • Fast heartbeat

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fast breathing

  • Dry mouth

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Muscle tension or aches and pains

  • Feeling tired or lacking energy

  • Stomach aches

  • Feeling sick

  • Needing to go the toilet lots

  • Headaches

Anxiety that's uncontrolled and untreated can lead to depression.

Types of anxiety

If you're experiencing anxiety symptoms over a long time, and they're affecting your day-to-day activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Here are the are six main types of anxiety disorders.

1. Generalised anxiety disorder

A long-term condition that makes you have regular feelings of anxiety about a wide range of issues or situations. The symptoms vary but may include feeling worried, having trouble concentrating or sleeping, dizziness, and heart palpitations.

2. Panic disorder

Panic disorder causes sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear lasting several minutes or longer. These attacks often happen for no reason. A person having a panic attack has a rush of mental and physical symptoms. They may feel as though they are losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.

3. Phobia

Phobias are an extreme fear of an object, animal, place, situation, or feeling. Examples include claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) and arachnophobia (intense fear of spiders).

4. Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia

People with social anxiety fear or dread social situations. It involves excessive worrying about everyday social activities, such as meeting people, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, going shopping, or working.

5. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Someone with PTSD has experienced a very stressful, frightening, or distressing event. The condition often involves nightmares and 'flashbacks' when they relive the traumatic event. People with PTSD often have feelings of guilt, isolation, and irritability. They may also suffer from depression.

6. Health anxiety

Also called hypochondria, health anxiety causes someone to feel extremely worried about their health and that they're about to get ill.

What causes anxiety?

Everyone's experience of anxiety is different, so it's hard to pinpoint the exact causes. There are lots of factors involved. Some day-to-day things that can trigger anxiety or anxiety attacks include:

  • Pressure at work and working long hours

  • Money problems

  • Relationship problems

  • Exhaustion

  • Feeling lonely or isolated

  • Losing a loved one

  • Dealing with a severe illness or injury

  • Being bullied, harassed, or abused

  • Experiencing other mental health problems, such as depression

Other common triggers of anxiety or an anxiety disorder include:

  • Physical or emotional abuse

  • Separation or divorce

  • Bereavement

  • Bullying

  • Social isolation

Certain drugs can also result in anxiety or anxiety attack symptoms, including psychiatric medications, medicines for certain physical health conditions, recreational drugs and alcohol.

How can a GP help with anxiety?

A GP will talk to you about your symptoms, how they affect you, and whether there are any triggers to your anxiety that they can help you to improve.

They may also refer you for treatment with talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

If your symptoms are very severe, or you've already had psychological treatment, you may need to consider anxiety medication to manage your anxiety.

As everyone experiences anxiety differently, a doctor will discuss your symptoms and may refer you to see a psychiatrist for a more accurate diagnosis. A psychiatrist may ask you a series of questions about your thought processes, mood and emotions as a type of anxiety test.

Treatment for anxiety

If your anxiety symptoms are mild, then a self-help course or mental health app may help you control and improve your symptoms. You can find a wide range of mental health resources to download through the NHS. These include anxiety breathing exercises and other tools you can access while at home or on the go.

Simple lifestyle changes like increasing your exercise levels, improving your sleep quality, and reducing how much alcohol and caffeine you have can also help.

Psychological treatments for anxiety and anxiety disorders, like CBT, are recommended and can be very effective.

If you have severe anxiety disorder symptoms, some anxiety medications can also be helpful. These include medicines that can reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety, like tremors, or drugs such as antidepressants, which can improve mood and mental symptoms.

If your anxiety symptoms interfere with your daily life and activities, or you feel they're affecting you in any other way, speak to a doctor for help.

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP, Livi