What is anxiety? Signs and causes
Reviewed by our clinical team
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry, or fear, ranging from mild to severe.
We all get anxious occasionally, such as when we start a new job or when we encounter a stressful or uncertain situation, but general anxiety can be a condition all by itself, one which impacts the lives of millions of people in the UK every year.
Anxiety often accompanies other conditions such as ADHD and depression. You might have one or more of these conditions at any one time, and they can often make each other worse. This is known as ‘comorbidity’.
Causes of anxiety
Conditions that often trigger anxiety symptoms include:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can be caused by traumatic events, like a car accident or a physical assault. People living with PTSD might experience anxiety along with insomnia, irritability, and feelings of guilt.
Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
Social phobia is an overwhelming fear of social situations, such as being in a crowd or meeting strangers. It often starts during your teenage years and can cause debilitating feelings of anxiety.
A panic disorder can cause severe anxiety and panic attacks, sudden periods of overwhelming but unspecified fear that can result in physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, and chest pain.
Other phobias, such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia
If you have a phobia, being exposed to the thing that you are scared of can trigger significant anxiety symptoms.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
This is the most common cause of anxiety symptoms.
Often, there’s no specific trigger, or the trigger can be something ordinary like work or relationships. In the case of GAD, the anxiety you feel can often be out of proportion to the actual problem. GAD often accompanies other conditions, such as depression.
It’s sometimes hard to know what causes anxiety as there can be many reasons behind it.
Whatever the trigger, anxiety can be overwhelming and make it difficult to live your life. That’s why it’s important to discuss what you’re feeling with a clinician and identify the cause.
Symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can show itself in a lot of different ways, and some of the symptoms can feel like symptoms of other conditions, like heart problems. This can often make you feel even worse.
Many people find themselves asking ‘do I have anxiety?’ at some point in their life, as it can be difficult to tell the difference between things like tiredness and stress, and more debilitating symptoms of anxiety.
The most common anxiety symptoms are:
Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
One of the most common symptoms of anxiety; you might feel worried about certain things (or even nothing at all) and be unable to control it.
You might feel restless, wound-up, or on edge, as though you’re waiting for something bad to happen, even though you’re perfectly safe.
You might get tired very easily, with the smallest tasks leaving you fatigued and needing to rest.
Anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate on work or other tasks, as you’re so distracted by the feeling of unease, and are scared of what might happen.
When you’re having symptoms of anxiety, you can seem irritable or ‘grumpy’, or as though you have a short fuse to those around you.
Headaches, muscle aches, stomach pain, or other pain
People often think of anxiety as just a mental thing, but it can manifest itself in many ways, including physical anxiety symptoms like head, muscle, or stomach pain.
Anxiety can make your head feel ‘loud’ or ‘busy’, or as though you have too many thoughts, which can make it difficult to sleep. You might also have trouble staying asleep because your mind is too active.
Anxiety and stress are thought to worsen skin conditions such as eczema or acne, by disrupting our diets and releasing stress hormones like cortisol. When you’re stressed or anxious, you might find that your skin is much more prone to breakouts and reactions.
If you also have a panic disorder, you might experience symptoms such as sweating, trembling, a feeling of ‘impending doom’ (like something terrible is going to happen) and even chest pains.
If you have Social Anxiety, you could also experience symptoms such as blushing, sweating, a racing heart, rigid body posture, difficulty making eye contact, and a fear of being judged.
How to help someone with anxiety
If you have a friend, family member, or child living with anxiety, it’s understandable that you’ll want to help them, however, you might not know how to deal with anxiety.
It’s important to remember that anxiety is a medical condition, and you might not be able to help as much as you like. Nevertheless, there are a few things you can do to help them feel a little bit better.
Try to understand their anxiety symptoms
The most important thing to do when trying to help someone you care about with their anxiety is to understand how it affects them personally.
The symptoms of anxiety can vary hugely, and something that helps one person may not help another. Do they struggle more with the physical symptoms or the mental symptoms? What are their particular triggers and how do they react?
When you understand more about how their anxiety affects them, you’ll be better equipped to empathise with them and help.
Let them know you’re there
Often, helping someone with anxiety can be as simple as letting them know you’re there.
Consider letting them know you’ve noticed they seem more anxious lately, and make sure they know they can confide in you rather than deal with it alone. Keep lines of communication open and make yourself available.
If they know you’re ready to help, they might be able to give you practical ways to do so. Do they just want someone to talk to? Do they want to be distracted? Listen to what they say, then take it on board.
Remember, anxiety can be a very frustrating and personal issue, so if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t pressure them; it should be a conversation, not an interrogation.
Try not to talk constantly about their anxiety, or get frustrated, as this can just make things worse.
Look after yourself
When a friend or family member is experiencing anxiety, you want to do everything you can to help them. Unfortunately, the causes of anxiety can often run deep, and it’s not something that can be fixed easily.
Make sure you’re there for them, but also take care of yourself and maintain your own wellbeing.
It can be tempting to ‘give’ too much of yourself in trying to help them, and this can impact both your own mental wellbeing and your relationship with the person in the long run.
Remember to talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling regularly, keep up with your hobbies, and moderate the time you spend in ‘helper’ mode. This will protect your mental health, and ensure you’re there to help when they need it.
Don’t expect things to change overnight
Recovery from anxiety isn’t something that happens overnight. It requires the person to learn the strategies that work for them, allowing them to recover over a period of time.
As much as we want to help those we love, anxiety isn’t something that we can fix easily. Try not to get frustrated, have patience, and aim to provide long term support rather than a quick fix.
When to seek help for anxiety
Anxiety can be frustrating and impact every aspect of your life. It can make simple tasks difficult, and spoil your enjoyment of things like socialising and hobbies.
We all get anxious sometimes, but when anxiety starts making it difficult to just live your life, it’s time to seek help.
If you feel isolated, find yourself regularly cancelling social engagements last minute, or if you’re experiencing panic attacks, agoraphobia, or physical symptoms like aches and pains and headaches, then you should look into anxiety treatment.
Treatment for anxiety
Thankfully, there are treatments available for anxiety that are often very effective.
Your first port of call should be talking to a GP to discuss your circumstances and symptoms. They might be able to pinpoint particular triggers or identify an underlying cause. They can then suggest the best course of treatment.
A clinician will generally diagnose you by evaluating you, your lifestyle, and factoring in potential related complications, such as depression or substance abuse.
GPs are equipped with the skills and knowledge to identify things you might not even be aware of and connect the dots to find the best next steps, which is why it’s so important to talk to a GP if you’re worried.
Some of the most common treatments for anxiety include:
Also known as counselling or just therapy, psychotherapy involves working with a specialist counsellor or therapist to reduce your anxiety symptoms.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and effective forms of anxiety treatment, focusing on teaching you how to deal with anxiety, including strategies to help you stay calm, like mindfulness and specially designed breathing exercises for anxiety.
Your doctor might decide that medication for anxiety, such as anti-anxiety tablets or anti-depressants, will be most effective for you.
These medications work by altering the levels of certain chemicals in your brain, such as adrenaline, to prevent disordered ‘fight or flight’ thinking.
As depression and anxiety are closely linked, some medications are designed to help minimise the symptoms of both conditions.
Your clinician might also prescribe a different type of medication for anxiety or anxiety treatment, such as a sedative if the symptoms of your anxiety are very severe. Generally, these medications are meant for short-term use.
Most likely, depending on your circumstances, your clinician will recommend a combination of medication and counselling or therapy.
This tactic ensures that your anxiety symptoms are minimised or controlled, making it easier for you to learn the cognitive strategies you need to manage your condition long term.
Anxiety can make it difficult to live your life the way you want, and can lead to depression and reduced quality of life if it’s not treated. Thankfully, help is just a click away.
If you feel that your anxiety is causing you to hide away, avoid your responsibilities, or if it’s impacting your physical wellbeing, then you need to seek help.