Anxiety — basic facts
Everyone occasionally experiences some anxiety. It is a normal response to a stressful event or perceived threat. Anxiety can range from feeling uneasy and worried to severe panic. The aim of this Tip Sheet is to inform people about what anxiety is and to provide some tips to help manage anxiety when it becomes a problem.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear or impending disaster and reflects the thoughts and bodily reactions a person has when they are presented with an event or situation that they cannot manage or undertake successfully. When a person is experiencing anxiety their thoughts are actively assessing the situation, sometimes even automatically and outside of conscious attention, and developing predictions of how well they will cope based on past experiences.
Although some anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation, when the anxiety level is too high a person may not come up with an effective way of managing the stressful or threatening situation. They might "freeze", avoid the situation, or even fear they may do something that is out of character.
Anxiety generally causes people to experience the following responses:
- An intense physical response due to arousal of the nervous system leading to physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat.
- A cognitive response which refers to thoughts about the situation and the person's ability to cope with it. For someone experiencing high anxiety this often means interpreting situations negatively and having unhelpful thoughts such as "This is really bad" or "I can't cope with this".
- A behavioural response which may include avoidance or uncharacteristic behaviour including aggression, restlessness or irrational behaviour such as repeated checking.
What causes anxiety?
There is no one cause of high anxiety. Rather, there are a number of factors that may contribute to the development of anxious thoughts and behaviour. Some causes of anxiety are listed below.
Research has shown that some people with a family history of anxiety are more likely (though not always) to also experience anxiety.
Research suggests that people who experience a high level of anxiety may have an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that regulate feelings and physical reactions. Medication that helps to correct this imbalance can relieve some symptoms of anxiety in some people.
Certain life experiences can make people more susceptible to anxiety. Events such as a family break up, abuse, ongoing bullying at school and workplace conflict can be stress factors that challenge a person’s coping resources and leave them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety.
Certain personality types are more at risk of high anxiety than others. People who have a tendency to be shy, have low self-esteem, and a poor capacity to cope are more likely to experience high levels of anxiety.
Certain thinking styles make people more at risk of high anxiety than others. For instance, people who are perfectionistic or expect to be in constant control of their emotions are more at risk of worrying when they feel stress.
Certain ways of behaving also place people at risk of maintaining high anxiety. For instance, people who are avoidant are not likely to learn ways of handling stressful situations, fears and high anxiety.
What are symptoms of anxiety?
The experience of anxiety will vary from person to person. Central features of anxiety include ongoing worry or thoughts that are distressing and that interfere with daily living. In addition to worry or negative thinking, symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Avoidance behaviour
How is anxiety treated?
Psychological treatment, particularly cognitive-behaviour therapy, has been found to be very effective in the treatment of anxiety. Cognitive behaviour therapy is made up of two components. The first component, cognitive therapy, is one of the most common and well supported treatments for anxiety. It is based on the idea that a person's thoughts in response to an event or situation causes the difficult feelings and behaviours (i.e., it is often not an event that causes distress but a person's interpretation of that event). The aim of cognitive therapy is to help people to identify unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns, which are often automatic, negative and irrational, and replace them with more positive and helpful ways of thinking. The second component of cognitive behaviour therapy involves assistance with changing behaviours that are associated with anxiety, such as avoidance or restlessness. These may be dealt with through learning relaxation techniques and through changes in the way that certain situations are handled.
Other treatments used to address anxiety include medication and making lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise, reducing caffeine and other dietary changes.