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 feel 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. See our pages on how to manage stressfor more information about stress.
"For me, anxiety feels as if everyone in the world is waiting for me to trip up, so that they can laugh at me. It makes me feel nervous and unsure whether the next step I take is the best way forward."
What is the 'fight, flight or freeze' response?
Like all animals, human beings have evolved ways to help us protect ourselves from danger. When we feel under threat our bodies react by releasing certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can be helpful. These hormones:
- make us feel more alert, so we can act faster
- make our hearts beat faster, quickly sending blood to where it's needed most.
After we feel the threat has passed, our bodies release other hormones to help our muscles relax. This can sometimes cause us to shake.
This is commonly called the 'fight, flight or freeze' response – it's something that happens automatically in our bodies, and we have no control over it.
"Going out of the house is a challenge because I have a fear of panicking and feel that I'm being watched or judged. It's just horrible. I want to get help but I'm afraid of being judged."
When is anxiety a mental health problem?
Anxiety can become a mental health problem if it impacts your ability to live your life as fully as you want to. For example, it may be a problem 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. Our pages on self-care and treatment for anxiety offer suggestions for help and support.
What do anxiety problems feel like?
Watch Lewis, Polly, Faisal, Shelley and Brian talk about what living with anxiety problems feels like for them, and what helps them cope:
What is a panic attack?
During a panic attack, physical symptoms can build up very quickly. These can include:
- a pounding or racing heartbeat
- feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
- feeling very hot or very cold
- sweating, trembling or shaking
- nausea (feeling sick)
- pain in your chest or abdomen
- struggling to breathe or feeling like you're choking
- feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
- feeling disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings, which are types of dissociation.
During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that you're:
- losing control
- going to faint
- having a heart attack
- going to die.
How to cope with panic attacks
Heart FM DJ Matt Wilkinson talks to Gus Marshall about his experience of anxiety and panic attacks.