What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.

Most people feel anxious at times. It's particularly common to experience some anxiety while coping with stressful events or changes, especially if they could have a big impact on your life.

When is Anxiety a mental health problem?

Anxiety can become a mental health problem if it impacts on your ability to live your life as fully as you want to. For example, it may be a problem for you if:

  • your feelings of anxiety are very strong or last for a long time
  • your fears or worries are out of proportion to the situation
  • you avoid situations that might cause you to feel anxious
  • your worries feel very distressing or are hard to control
  • you regularly experience symptoms of anxiety, which could include panic attacks
  • you find it hard to go about your everyday life or do things you enjoy.

If your symptoms fit a particular set of medical criteria then you might be diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder. But it's also possible to experience problems with anxiety without having a specific diagnosis. 

What does Anxiety feel like?

Anxiety feels different for everyone. You might experience some of the things listed below, and you might also have other experiences or difficulties that aren't listed here.


Effects on your body:

  • a churning feeling in your stomach
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • pins and needles
  • feeling restless or unable to sit still
  • headaches, backache or other aches and pains
  • faster breathing
  • a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • problems sleeping
  • grinding your teeth, especially at night
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • needing the toilet more or less often
  • changes in your sex drive
  • having panic attacks

Effects on your mind:

  • feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
  • having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
  • feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
  • feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you
  • feeling like you can't stop worrying, or that bad things will happen
  • worrying about anxiety itself, for example worrying about panic attacks
  • wanting lots of reassurance from other people
  • worrying that you're losing touch with reality
  • rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
  • depersonalisation – feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you're watching someone else (this is a type of dissociation)
  • derealisation – feeling disconnected from the world around you, or like the world isn't real (this is a type of dissociation)
  • worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future

How might Anxiety affect my life?

Anxiety symptoms can last for a long time, or come and go. You might find you have difficulty with day-to-day aspects of your life, including:

  • looking after yourself
  • holding down a job
  • forming or maintaining relationships
  • trying new things
  • simply enjoying your leisure time

What causes anxiety?

No one knows exactly what causes anxiety problems, but there probably lots of factors involved. Some example ares below:

  • past or childhood experiences
  • your current life situation
  • physical and mental health problems
  • drugs and medication