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What Is Anxiety?

Want to learn more about anxiety? This article covers everything from symptoms and causes, to the various treatments that are available for those dealing with anxiety disorders.

Isobel Robb

The word anxiety with a pink background and yellow doodles around it drawn on an iPad

The word anxiety comes up frequently these days, but do you know exactly what it means? It’s not as straightforward as you may think. Anxiety can describe both a feeling and a range of medical conditions. Plus, despite the terms often being used interchangeably, it differs in significant ways from feelings like stress and fear.

In this article, ManageMinds provides a beginner’s guide to anxiety, including its causes, symptoms and treatments.

What is anxiety?

In the simplest terms, anxiety is characterised by a combination of feelings like worry, dread and unease. It can affect us physically, psychologically and emotionally. It is highly likely that you will feel anxious at various points in your life. This is totally normal. However, experiencing anxiety does not necessarily mean that you have anxiety.

Anxiety becomes a condition when it presents at an intensity that is not in proportion to the situation and when it prevents you from functioning as you normally would. In many cases, it may not even be clear why you are experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety can range from mild to severe and often involves worrying about things that are about to happen or may happen in the future.

How does it differ from stress and fear?

While not exactly the same, anxiety is closely linked to states like stress and fear. Indeed, periods of stress can trigger a person to develop anxiety. The main difference, though, is that stress and fear tend to be a response to some kind of external stimulus. As a result, when this stimulus is removed, the feelings of stress or fear pass.

In contrast, anxiety is an internal response to perceived stressors. In many cases, the triggers are in the form of thoughts, rather than real life events or threats. This means that even when one trigger is removed or resolved, new ones can arise in its place. It is for these reasons that anxiety can be very hard to control.

Types of anxiety

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Image source: Natasha Connell (via Unsplash)

Anxiety is a core symptom associated with a number of mental health conditions. We explore the most common anxiety disorders below.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is a condition that causes frequent periods of intense anxiety that result in panic attacks (also referred to as anxiety attacks). A panic attack occurs when you experience an intense rush of physical symptoms like shortness of breath and a racing heartbeat, and feelings like dread and disassociation. They are very unpleasant and may completely overwhelm you.

On average, panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes. People with panic disorder may experience anxiety attacks a few times a year or multiple times a month.

Phobias

A phobia is an extreme, irrational fear of a particular object, animal or situation. Sufferers can be triggered by anything linked to the subject of their phobia. For example, someone with a fear of spiders may start to feel anxious when they see a cobweb.

Phobias are divided into two groups: specific and complex. Specific phobias, also known as simple phobias, are a fear of a particular thing. They tend to get less severe over time. Examples of specific phobias include hemophobia (fear of blood), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), amaxophobia (fear or anxiety while driving) and acrophobia (fear of heights).

Complex phobias can be more debilitating, are harder to define and usually revolve around a particular circumstance. One of the most common complex phobias is agoraphobia, which refers to a fear of situations in which one may not be able to escape.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects those who have been through some kind of situation that they found very distressing. Their anxiety is triggered by persistent flashbacks to the event, often in the form of intrusive memories or nightmares. Symptoms include irritability, insomnia and panic attacks.

It can develop at any time, from immediately after the event, to years later. People who have been through multiple traumatic events may experience what is known as complex PTSD. Both forms of the condition can impact one’s self-worth and ability to form and sustain relationships with others.

Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety disorder, which is sometimes referred to as social phobia, is characterised by an intense fear of social situations. People with social anxiety are not just shy, they feel strong anxiety even in the build-up to social situations and are irrationally worried about embarrassing themselves in public. As a result, those with the condition often have low confidence and struggle to form solid relationships.

Find help for this with our 8 tips for navigating social anxiety!

Generalised anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition that causes people to regularly experience anxiety for a range of different reasons. Because the anxiety is not linked to any specific event or object, it can be difficult to know where to start with treatment. Those with GAD will experience anxiety on an almost daily basis. This means it has a significant impact on their lives and can lead to the development of further health problems.

You can treat GAD with our Manage Anxiety Programme.

Symptoms

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Image source: Joice Kelly (via Unsplash)

The list of symptoms associated with anxiety is long and varied. It displays differently from person to person. Where one individual may experience a couple of physical manifestations of anxiety, others may suffer from a range of emotional and psychological symptoms.

The most common symptoms of anxiety include:

Behavioural symptoms

Along with an unpleasant array of physical and psychological symptoms, anxiety can cause people to lead very restrictive lives in an attempt to reduce their need to worry. For example, some people try to manage their anxiety by staying at home and avoiding others. The problem is that social interactions are incredibly important for our mental health. Avoidance tactics like this therefore only serve to increase the mental burden on those with anxiety.

For more writing on this topic head to the symptoms section of our blog.

Causes

There is no single clear answer as to what causes anxiety. In fact, some people develop anxiety for no apparent reason. That being said, anxiety conditions are usually the result of a combination of factors that can be split into two main camps: biological and environmental.

Biological

Genetic

Various studies have shown that certain people may be predisposed to be more anxious than others, thanks to their genes. Potential hereditary traits include an imbalance of certain brain chemicals, which can cause the parts of the brain responsible for emotions to be overactive.

Environmental

Childhood experiences

Certain anxious behaviours can be learned from influential people when we are at an impressionable age. For example, if you see your mother having a strong, negative reaction to dogs, you may develop a fear of dogs as well.

Traumatic events experienced in childhood can also play a major role in our brain development and how we cope with stress.

Unresolved trauma

Traumatic experiences that occur at any age can lead to the development of anxiety disorders. Our brains will often implement defence mechanisms like repression to help us to cope with difficult issues and memories. However, if we do not address the trauma itself, the emotions linked to it may present in the form of an anxiety disorder.

You can learn more about these factors in the causes section of our blog.

Diagnosis

If you are experiencing anxiety symptoms that last more than a few weeks and it is impacting your ability to function, get in touch with your GP. They will be able to offer advice and explain the various treatment options that are available to you.

It is important to note that you do not need a formal diagnosis of anxiety to access help. If you’re keen to learn more about the type of anxiety you may have, there are various self-assessment tools you can use. A good place to start is the GAD-7 test, which can be found online, alongside other self-report questionnaires for anxiety.

Treatments

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Image source: Dylan Ferreira (via Unsplash)

As it covers multiple complex conditions, there are a number of treatments available for anxiety. The form you choose will depend on a combination of the type of disorder you have, the severity of your anxiety and personal preferences. Anxiety treatments can be categorised into 3 main groups:

1. Therapy

Therapy is a very effective treatment for anxiety. It involves talking through your problems with a professional psychologist or counsellor. You can access therapy in person, over the phone or via video call. There are many different therapeutic approaches to choose from.

The most common therapy used to treat anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This involves exploring the relationship between your thoughts, feelings and actions so you can learn how anxious thinking impacts all aspects of your life. The therapist will guide you to adopt healthier thought processes to reduce anxiety and help you to cope with life’s challenges.

Other forms of therapy used to treat anxiety include exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), hypnotherapy and counselling.

To explore how therapy can treat anxiety further, check out the therapies section of the blog.

2. Medication

Some moderate and severe forms of anxiety may be treated with medication. You should only take this option under the supervision of a medical professional. It is also important to understand that psychoactive medications can be addictive and may produce negative side-effects.

Common medications prescribed for anxiety include antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These may be prescribed for short or long-term use. If these do not prove effective, you may also be offered a short-term course of benzodiazepines, which are a type of sedative.

Some people find it useful to combine therapy and medication to treat their anxiety.

3. Self-help

Finally, if your anxiety is mild to moderate, you may want to start by turning to self-help methods. Simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference to your mental health. Consider trying the following to improve your anxiety:

You can also learn some coping methods that will help you to deal with anxiety in the moment. An example of this is the 3-3-3 rule. If you find yourself starting to feel overwhelmed by anxiety, switch your focus to your surroundings, rather than what’s happening in your head. One after the other, name three things you see, three things you hear and then move three parts of your body. Repeat as necessary. This simple routine should focus your mind and help you to regain control over spiralling thoughts.

We have more useful techniques like this in the self-help section of our blog.

Getting to grips with anxiety

You should now have a clear idea of what anxiety is, how it can present itself and the options you have when it comes to treatment. While anxiety is a difficult condition to live with, it is important to remember that you are not alone. In fact, it is estimated that anxiety affects 1 in 25 people in the UK. The more you learn about it, the better equipped you will be to manage your symptoms and enjoy improved mental health.

Looking for information on how to help a loved one dealing with anxiety? Head to the supporting others section of our blog.

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