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Page medically reviewed by Dr William Shanahan, Medical Director (Private) and Clinical Director of Addictions (BAO, BCh, DCH, D'OBS, FRCPsych, MB), Priory Hospital Roehampton, in March 2022.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience from time-to-time. Characterised as a sense of fear, trepidation or worry, anxiety is a natural human response to feeling threatened. You might have felt anxious when you had your last job interview, or spoke in front of a large audience, as things like this can make us feel ‘out of our comfort zone’.

While feelings of anxiety can be entirely normal, some people find their anxiety is so severe it damages their ability to lead a normal life. This is when anxiety becomes a mental health disorder, that needs professional treatment.

Anxiety statistics show that this condition affects millions of people in the UK every year. Today, anxiety has many effective treatments and a full recovery is perfectly achievable.

What does Anxiety Feel Like? Symptoms of Anxiety

Whether they are psychological or physical symptoms of anxiety, the disorder can manifest itself differently in different people. If you think you might be suffering from anxiety, here are the key signs and symptoms to look out for:

Psychological Signs of Anxiety

psychological symptoms of anxiety

  • A persistent sense of worry, apprehension, dread or hopelessness, which are often disproportionate to the situation
  • Constantly worrying about something negative happening
  • Feeling trapped and unable to find a ‘way out’. Wanting to “flee”.
  • Anger, irritability and impatience – often for no apparent reason
  • Feeling fearful, paranoid and tense
  • Mood swings
  • Extreme stress
  • Feeling tearful and emotionally tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low self-esteem

Physical Signs of Anxiety

physical symptoms of anxiety

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • Needing the toilet more or less often
  • Sweating and hot or cold flushes
  • Shortness of breath and tightness in your chest
  • Increased heartbeat or palpitations
  • Muscle tension and tiredness
  • Appetite changes – either increased or reduced appetite which may also result in weight fluctuations
  • Sleep disturbances – experiencing reduced sleep because you are unable to ‘switch off’ from your anxiety, or finding that you are sleeping long hours and struggle to get out of bed
  • Panic attacks

Panic attacks vs Anxiety attacks: What’s the difference?

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. ‘Anxiety attack’ is not a clinically recognised term, and the symptoms of an anxiety attack are broadly aligned with the term ‘anxiety’.

They do share some of the symptoms of panic attacks, such as an increase in heart rate and shortness of breath, but there is a clear distinction:

Panic attack

A short, sudden and intense build-up of physical symptoms such as chest pains, heart palpitations or trembling and shaking. You might also feel a sense of losing control or fear of dying.

Anxiety attack

A gradual development of symptoms that may last many hours at a time. Characterised as excessive worrying, symptoms include muscle tension, irritability and sleep disturbances.

Behavioural/Social Signs of Anxiety:

  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Reduced work or school performance
  • Taking time off sick from work or school
  • Inability to manage day-to-day tasks effectively
  • Drug and alcohol abuse as a way of self-medicating
  • A fear that you might have Covid-19 and that it has been missed.

Who can get Anxiety Symptoms?

Anxiety as a feeling can, and does, happen to anyone. However, for those who develop severe anxiety and are diagnosed with a type of anxiety disorder, the causes could be one or a combination of things. Some common causes for developing an anxiety disorder include:

Life events

Going through a significant life event or experience can be a major trigger for severe anxiety. These, often negative, events may bring about change and upheaval in your life that you are struggling to cope with. The stress that these events bring can result in anxiety. Examples include:

  • Losing someone who is close to you
  • The break-up of a marriage or relationship
  • Money issues
  • Working long hours or suddenly losing your job
  • Worrying about issues in the world around you, such as a pandemic, wars, famines, or concerns around the environment

Childhood or past trauma

During your childhood years, you are still developing emotionally as a human being. If traumatic events or experiences occur during childhood, it may affect your ability to deal with stressful scenarios in adulthood – as you were unable to fully develop the right coping strategies as a child. Some of these experiences include:

  • Physical , or sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Divorce of your parents
  • Loss of a parent – especially at an early age.
  • Being bullied in school, or struggling to make friends

These issues might also affect you as an adult, especially if you bottle up any feelings you have around these issues.

They may leave you with a number of negative automatic thoughts: “I’m a failure, I’m no good at anything”, or negative assumptions: “I will never make anything of myself; everything I touch is doomed to failure”. These feelings may have been implanted in our sub-conscious minds many years ago by a figure in authority. We want to get past them but we fear that they might be true.

Other health complications

It is common for people who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder to also have issues with other areas of their health. For example, anxiety is common symptom of depression, and many people who live with depression might develop an anxiety disorder because of their struggles with mental health.

Physical health problems can also intertwine with mental health in a way that contributes to developing anxiety. If you have a history of health issues, you might develop health anxiety, where you become worried that small sensations are major health problems. A serious physical health issue might also lead to developing anxiety, especially if it severely effects your quality of life. It is also worth noting that some medication may list anxiety as a side-effect.

Sometimes, an unbearable anxiety can be “converted” into a more acceptable physical symptom such as back pain, or migraine, or even a paralysis. We can search for an underlying physical problem and have numerous investigations that fail to find a source. It is then that the possibility of everything being caused by anxiety arises.

Priory explains: Anxiety

Priory therapist Niamh Maguire explores everything you need to know about anxiety, from the symptoms and causes to the most effective treatments.

When to get Help for Anxiety

If your anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to lead a normal life, or your symptoms for anxiety have persisted over many days and weeks, it might be time to seek extra support. Anxiety is a treatable mental health condition, and sufferers are able to make a full recovery and return to normal.

The first place to go is your local GP. They can assess your symptoms, offer a diagnosis for anxiety and outline treatment options.

Alternatively, you could get in touch with Priory directly, where our world-class team of mental health practitioners help people deal with their anxiety across the UK every single day. We can diagnose  any mental health issues that you are struggling with and then outline a course of anxiety treatment that will help get your life back on track.

In most cases, anxiety can be treated with therapy and/or medication. These can be delivered through one of our many different treatment programmes, such as intensive inpatient stays, outpatient or day care therapy sessions that fit in with your life and work commitments. We also offer online therapy that allows you to recover from the comfort of your own home.

Whichever course of treatment is right for you, get in touch with Priory and start your journey to recovery today. 

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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