What is anxiety?

Worried about feeling anxious? 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

  • often find yourself feeling anxious for no reason

  • avoid doing things because of anxiety.

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This page will cover:

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is your body’s response to threats, either actual or perceived. Your breathing rate 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 and help you power through. For example, if you feel a bit anxious about an assignment or an exam or a job interview, anxiety helps motivate you to study or prepare. 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.

When might you feel anxious?

‘Why am I so anxious? What is causing this?’. The when and why of anxiety is different for everyone, and sometimes you may not understand why you're feeling anxious. In those moments it can help to know some of the common causes.

Common causes of anxiety include:

  • not getting enough sleep

  • not practising self-care enough, including showering regularly, exercising, eating healthily and doing things you enjoy

  • consuming too much caffeine, such as coffee, tea or energy drinks

  • meeting new people or attending social gatherings

  • stress about finances or job stability

  • pressure from work, school or caring responsibilities

  • conflict in relationships

  • a cluttered home environment

  • a seemingly never-ending to-do list

  • big, stressful events, such as the death of a friend or family member.

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.

Here are some common physical symptoms:

  • racing heart (heart palpitations) or tightening of the chest or throat

  • rapid breathing or shortness of breath

  • feeling tense, restless, ‘on edge’ or wound up

  • hot and cold flushes

  • sweating

  • shaking

  • nausea

  • headaches

  • feeling weak or tired

  • stomach or digestion issues

You might also experience:

  • obsessive thinking, excessive fear and worrying

  • a sense of impending panic or danger

  • imagining the worst-case scenario

  • difficulty in thinking about anything other than what’s worrying you

  • difficulty in focusing on and performing everyday activities

  • difficulty in sleeping

  • avoiding situations that make you feel anxious (e.g. taking public transport, going to class or meeting new people).

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

Keep in mind that some people may have different symptoms. This list isn’t designed to give you a diagnosis. You can use this as a guide, but only a doctor can properly diagnose an anxiety disorder.

What is an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder occurs when anxiety starts to affect 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 transport).

Types of anxiety disorders

Not all symptoms of anxiety fit into a single category and some people may experience a combination of different types of anxiety. Learning what different types of anxiety disorders exist can help you better understand your experience of anxiety.

Some common types of anxiety disorders 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.

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder: anxious thoughts leading to obsessive behaviour and compulsions to do certain things.

  • 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 the 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.

If you have experienced a traumatic event, view our resources on trauma for further information and support.

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

Treatment for anxiety

Your GP or mental health professional can help you work out why you're feeling anxious and develop a treatment plan that suits your needs. This plan might include trying a variety of psychological therapies like (CBT), self-help strategies, or being prescribed medication.

Head here for some more information on treatments for anxiety.

Self-care to help with anxiety

If you aren’t ready to see a professional, try these tips to help manage your anxiety:

  • Do a calming breathing exercise.  Try: The 4-7-8 technique – breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds.

  • Focus your mind on your present surroundings.  Try: Focus on the five senses. Make a list of things around you that you can see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. 

  • Take a break to ease your stress. Try: Schedule regular breaks of 5–10 minutes into your day. Try to make time each day to do one thing you enjoy or that you find relaxing, such as chatting to a friend, watching a Netflix episode or listening to a podcast.

Here are more self-care strategies for helping with both the immediate and long-term management of anxiety symptoms.

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?

  • Book a chat with an experienced peer worker using ReachOut PeerChat.