What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a perfectly natural response to events and situations that feel uncomfortable or threatening and something that everyone will experience from time to time. It’s not always a bad thing. For example, it can help motivate us to revise and prepare for tests and interviews, or help us perform effectively in pressured situations or emergencies. However, it can also be very unhelpful. Symptoms of anxiety can feel frightening which can make us feel even more anxious. Moreover, it can have a significant impact on our day to day life as well as on our physical and mental health. The first step to dealing with a problem is understanding it better.

Am I suffering from anxiety?

The first step in tackling anxiety is working out whether or not you are struggling with it. Some people might think they don’t suffer from anxiety because it can present itself in surprising ways. Anxiety can affect our body, our feelings, our thoughts and our behaviour. Here are a few common anxiety symptoms:

  • Our body: Increased heart rate, sweating, dizziness, tight chest, altered breathing, feeling twitchy or tense, muscle ache, stomach ache, nausea.
  • Our feelings: anxious, worried, scared, nervous, on edge, detached, panicky, strange.
  • Our thoughts: “I’m going to be sick”, “I’m going to faint”, “I have to get out”, “I’m going to have a heart attack”, “I’m out of control”, “I can’t cope”.
  • Our behaviour: Can’t sit still, increased smoking, increased alcohol consumption, pacing, change in eating habits, snappy, unable to start or finish activities.

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? Then you may well be dealing with anxiety.

What causes anxiety?

Anxiety is part of our body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response. When faced with a situation that seems threatening, our body automatically prepares to either escape or put up a fight. That’s why our muscles tense ready for action, our heart rate increases to drive more blood to where it’s needed and our breathing changes to provide the oxygen required for energy.

This is all well and good for emergencies, but often this automatic response isn’t necessary and makes us feel worse.

Different situations will cause different levels of anxiety for different people. Major life changes are often a cause for anxiety, such as losing or changing jobs or a relationship breakdown. Other common causes are grief, moving house, financial worries, issues with work or illness.

For most people, anxiety is a short term problem that can be attributed to a particular situation or life event. However in some cases, it can become a lifelong issue. This could be because the person has a worried personality and therefore is habitually anxious, or it may be that the situation causing their anxiety is something that drags on for a long time.

However, it could also be that their anxiety has formed a vicious circle. This happens when the physical symptoms of anxiety are frightening and cause the person to worry that something really is wrong, leading to increased anxiety.

Equally, it is possible to become anxious about being anxious. By predicting that you’ll be anxious and worrying about it, you actually create the symptoms that you’re worrying about.

In order to deal with this vicious circle, it may be tempting to start avoiding the situations that cause anxiety. Often, these situations are not actually dangerous but are important parts of our day to day life, such as using public transport, going out for meals, being in crowds or talking to people.

By avoiding these situations, they become even more frightening, we become even less confident and our anxiety increases. Another vicious circle!

Understanding how anxiety is caused and how it affects us is the first step in learning how to tackle it.