What is anxiety?
We will all experience anxiety at some point in our lives. For many people, feelings of nervousness, tension or worry are a normal reaction to fear. It can be due to physical sensations, feelings or thoughts. The nerves you feel before an exam or job interview are anxiety. Anxiety is often coupled with stress as a stressful experience can cause us to experience some anxiety.
However, anxiety becomes a mental health problem when it stops you from enjoying your everyday life.
Key signs that it has become a mental health problem are:
- When you have regular feelings of anxiety with no real cause and the feelings of anxiety go on for a long time
- When you avoid certain situations in case it makes you anxious
- When your feelings of anxiety are disproportionate to the situation
- When your worries or thoughts are very upsetting or hard to control
- You find it hard to do things you enjoy
Why do we experience anxiety?
Anxiety is biology’s way of keeping us safe. It has evolved to protect us from primal danger and is our inbuilt “fight or flight” mode. When we feel under threat our bodies send signals to our brain to release adrenaline and cortisol, so we are primed to be more alert and act faster.
This feels like your heart beating fast and hard and can make you suddenly need the toilet (because who needs a full stomach when you’re being chased by a sabre-tooth tiger?).
Though the risk of imminent death from an ancient predator has greatly reduced, our brains don’t always know this. And when anxiety becomes a mental health issue, you may find that you have “fight or flight” reactions before a meeting, public events or even trying to put your coffee order in.
What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?
Symptoms of anxiety are unique to everyone. The most common symptoms are below but you may also experience other symptoms:
- Thumping heartbeat
- Sweating or hot flushes
- Irregular breathing or feeling like you can’t breathe properly (see panic attacks below)
- Aches and pains
- Feeling restless and trouble concentrating
- Sleep problems
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Changes to your sex drive
What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are a response to fear. They are your body reacting to stress, excitement or danger in an extreme way and are very distressing for the person experiencing it. Panic attacks can come on very suddenly.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
During a panic attack you experience physical symptoms that can include:
- Struggling to breathe or hyperventilating
- Sweating, trembling or shaking
- Pounding or racing heart
- Pain in your chest (which is why some people feel like they’re having a heart attack)
- Feeling disconnected from your body or surroundings (also known as dissociation)
You may also feel like you’re going to be sick, faint or lose control.
Treatment for anxiety disorder and panic attacks
Those dealing with anxiety and panic attacks on a day-to-day basis know only too well the distress and disruption these disorders can have on your daily life. However, there are a variety of evidence-based treatments including self-care, therapy and medication that can help. Most people respond best with a combination. Treatment plans should always be discussed and regularly reviewed with your doctor.
Self-care for anxiety and panic attacks
There are steps you can take to help with your anxiety. You should always speak to your GP before starting a new treatment or if treatment isn’t helping or making you feel worse.
Mindfulness – mindfulness is all about grounding you at the present and can help tame your mind. Through practised breathing techniques you can help control your anxiety symptoms.
App-based CBT – some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Treatment) is available via NHS apps which guide you through an online course
Talking therapy for anxiety and panic attacks
If self-care options aren’t working for you then you can be referred for talking therapies with a counsellor/therapist or psychiatrist.
We offer rapid access to counsellors and psychiatrist available by video appointment.
Medication for anxiety disorder and panic attacks
In some cases, your GP may prescribe medication to help with your anxiety symptoms. These can include antidepressants (usually SSRI’s, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or beta-blockers. Your GP will discuss which medication if the most appropriate for you.
As with all medication, you may experience side effects which could make your anxiety feel worse at first. However, it’s important to give the medication time to work. It can take time to find the right medication for you so it may be helpful to keep a diary of symptoms and side effects when you start a new medication.
Book to a see a GP today
Our GPs are available 7 days a week, no matter where you are.
Counselling services and psychiatric treatment
You can book an online appointment with our counsellor and consultant psychiatrist. Please note if you are using Private Medical Insurance, you may need a GP referral first. Please check with your provider.
Reviewed by Dr Daniel Fenton, Clinical Director at The Doctors Clinic Group
Published: May 2020 | Review date: May 2023