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Worried about feeling anxious a lot? Wondering what anxiety actually is? Learn how to tell the difference between everyday levels of anxiety and stress, and an anxiety disorder. Find out what causes anxiety, what symptoms of anxiety are, and what steps you can take next.

This can help if you:

  • often feel scared, worried, ‘on edge’ or nervous
  • often worry that something bad will happen
  • have difficulty concentrating because of fear or worry
  • avoid doing things because of anxiety.
girl sitting on couch

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is your body’s physical response to threats. Your breathing might increase, your heart might start pounding, you could feel butterflies in your stomach, and you might get a burst of energy.

Everyone feels anxious at times, and a certain level of anxiety is normal, and even helpful, in some situations. Anxiety is your body’s way of keeping you safe. For instance, imagine you’re walking home, and you’re dragging your feet because you’re tired. Out of the corner of your eye, you think you see a snake. Suddenly, you forget how tired you are and have a burst of energy that helps you to get out of harm’s way.

Anxiety can also motivate you. If you feel a bit anxious about an assignment that’s due or a job interview, anxiety can help you to power through.

However, feeling too much anxiety about something, or feeling anxiety that’s not connected to an obvious challenge, isn’t helpful. It can get in the way of your day-to-day activities and affect your quality of life.

What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety?

People who experience anxiety or an anxiety disorder may display a variety of different signs and symptoms. Different types of anxiety disorders can also have different symptoms. However, there are some common ones, including:

  • racing heart or tightening of the chest
  • rapid breathing
  • feeling tense, restless, ‘on edge’ or wound up
  • hot and cold flushes
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • feeling weak or tired
  • obsessive thinking excessive fear and worrying
  • having a sense of impending panic, doom or danger
  • imagining the worst-case scenario
  • having difficulty thinking about anything other than what’s worrying you
  • having trouble sleeping
  • stomach or digestion issues
  • avoiding situations that make you feel anxious (e.g. taking public transport, going to class or meeting new people).

Read about what stress and anxiety do to your body in the long term.

Keep in mind that some people may not fit these exact symptoms, and this list isn’t designed to give you a diagnosis. You can use these as a guide, but only a doctor can give you a proper diagnosis.

What is an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder occurs when anxiety starts to impact on a person’s life and prevents them from engaging with friends, family, work or school. Rather than feeling anxious in response to actual danger, someone with an anxiety disorder will experience the same symptoms in situations they perceive as dangerous (e.g. when meeting new people or taking public transportation).

Not all anxiety fits into a single category, and some people may experience a combination of different types. Some common types of anxiety include:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder: excessive worry about anything and everything, including worrying about worrying.
  • Social anxiety disorder: anxiety in social situations, often rooted in the fear of doing something wrong and being judged by others.
  • Panic disorder: repeated panic attacks and worry about future panic attacks.
  • Agoraphobia: anxiety about having a panic attack in certain situations and not being able to escape or to get help.
  • Specific phobias: intense fear of objects or situations (e.g. dogs or heights).

What causes anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders aren’t caused by a single factor, but rather by a combination of things, which may include some of the following.

Family history

There is some evidence that people with anxious parents may be more susceptible to anxiety. This is due partly to genetic factors and partly to social learning.

Personality and learnt traits

People with certain traits can be more likely to have anxiety. For example, being a perfectionist or shy, or having low self-esteem, can contribute to developing anxiety. This doesn’t mean, though, that if you have those traits, you’ll definitely experience symptoms of anxiety.

Physical health

Some chronic physical conditions – such as asthma, food allergies, epilepsy, diabetes or heart conditions – may contribute to anxiety symptoms or affect treatment of anxiety. Having anxiety could also affect treatment for those physical health conditions.

Some physical conditions can mimic anxiety symptoms, so it can be useful to see a doctor to determine whether there is an underlying medical cause for your anxiety.

Stressful events or trauma

Ongoing stressful events or a traumatic experience can lead to a person developing anxiety. Some common triggers include:

  • change in living arrangements
  • financial stress
  • stress about work or changing jobs
  • family and relationship problems
  • pregnancy and giving birth
  • emotional strain and stress following a traumatic event
  • physical, verbal, sexual or emotional abuse or trauma
  • the loss or death of a loved one.

Other mental health conditions

Some people experience an anxiety disorder on its own, but it’s also common for an anxiety condition to occur together with other mental health conditions. Depression and anxiety often occur together. It’s important to get treatment for everything that’s going on.

What to do if you think you’re experiencing an anxiety disorder

If you think you’re experiencing an anxiety disorder, visit your GP or mental health professional. There are treatments available and your doctors can work with you to figure out a plan that suits you.

Get some information on treatments for anxiety here, and check out our self-care strategies for more info on what you can do to manage your symptoms, if you aren’t ready to see a doctor.

Remember that everyone responds differently to treatments and strategies, so figuring out what works for you might take some time. It’s important to keep at it until you find the right fit.

What can I do now?

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