What is anxiety?

Everyone will experience anxiety in their life. Anxiety is a normal human feeling of unease or fear that we experience when in a situation that feels frightening or threatening.

Although anxiety feels unpleasant, it helps us keep alert and prepare our body for ‘fight or flight’ – to fight the fearful object or situation, or to run away from it. Usually, when we leave the situation or get used to it, the anxiety decreases. But if the anxiety is constant or severe, it can get in the way of life.

How do I know if I have an anxiety problem?

Often, anxiety is a healthy reaction to something stressful. It can even help us deal with difficult situations. But sometimes, it can become excessive and interfere with your day-to-day life.

Examples of anxiety disorders include:

  • phobias
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • social anxiety
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • panic disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Physical Symptoms

When you feel particularly or noticeably anxious, you may feel some or all of these physical effects:

  • sweating
  • shaking or trembling
  • chest pain
  • stomach pain
  • irritability
  • agitation
  • nausea or vomiting
  • headaches
  • heart palpitations (you are very aware of your heartbeat) or tachycardia (racing heart)
  • feeling faint.

These symptoms are the same for most anxiety disorders. However, some disorders may have their own specific symptoms, such as repeatedly washing your hands in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Panic Attacks

If you suffer from anxiety, you may also experience panic attacks.

You may feel as if you’ll die, go insane, or have a nervous breakdown. Hyperventilating, nausea and feeling faint are common symptoms of a panic attack. Also, you might feel anxious for hours or even days afterwards.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is when you experience panic attacks repeatedly, and you’re worried about having another panic attack.

Eventually, many people with panic disorder avoid at least some of the activities or situations where they might have a panic attack. When you start avoiding situations where “escape” might be difficult, this is called agoraphobia. Sometimes, people start to avoid more and more situations for fear of having a panic attack. In extreme cases, the only place left where you feel safe is your own home.

The Anxiety Coach website has lots of great tips for dealing with panic attacks and panic disorder. And you can talk about your experiences on our Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia Forum.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) means you feel constantly worried or distressed about day-to-day, trivial matters. It may be something as small as not having the exact money when you get on a bus. Or you may worry that a common cold may seriously harm someone in your family. As a result, you end up feeling scared and uneasy all the time.

If you or someone you’re close to is suffering with GAD, visit our generalised anxiety disorder forum for some mutual support or if you have any questions.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is where you feel a need to carry out repetitive and obsessive rituals. For example, you may wash your hands over and over again, or check repeatedly that all windows and doors are locked.

You may have intrusive thoughts and fears that you cannot ignore. For example, you may believe something bad will happen if an obsessive task is not completed. So you carry out these behaviours to reduce the anxiety. When you cannot carry out your rituals, it leaves you feeling anxious and stressed. Unfortunately, carrying out the behaviour reinforces it and makes it worse in the long run.

Commonly, obsessions revolve around things like contamination, losing control, causing harm to yourself or others, perfectionism, or unwanted sexual thoughts.

You can visit our OCD Forum if you would like to talk to our members about this anxiety disorder.

Social Anxiety

If you suffer from social anxiety, you may only feel anxious in social situations. For example, you may be extremely self-conscious about how you appear to strangers or work colleagues. Also, you may find it difficult to make eye contact with others. Or you may feel afraid that any comment you make will portray you as a bad person.

To avoid such negative feelings, you might make excuses not to take part in social gatherings. But this can impact your overall mental well-being and leave you feeling utterly alone and isolated.

You can visit our Social Anxiety Forum to talk to others who suffer from social anxiety and get some friendly support.


If you have a phobia about a certain thing, you may feel terrified and anxious whenever you encounter it. In some cases, even something that reminds you of the thing you fear might trigger a panic attack.

You can visit our Specific Phobias Forum if you’d like to talk to fellow sufferers. You might encounter someone with the same or similar phobia as you!


Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, may occur if you have witnessed or been part of a very traumatic and painful experience. For example, abuse, assault, an accident, war or disaster can leave a lasting effect on you. As a result, you may experience flashbacks and nightmares. These can trigger panic attacks. Also, you may avoid any activities you feel is associated with the trauma.

If you need to talk to someone about PTSD and how it affects you or someone you know, visit our PTSD forum.

What should I do if I think I have an anxiety problem?

Remember that anxiety is very common. Everybody experiences anxiety. In fact, a certain degree of anxiety is good for us! But if your feelings are severe and don’t go away, you should seek more help. Your GP is likely to be the first person you will see. They might then recommend further treatment.

What can I do to help myself?

There are a number of things you can try:

  • Learn relaxation skills. Relaxation is a good way of calming the mind and body. If you would like to learn more about relaxation techniques, there are books, CDs and DVDs available to help you learn.
  • Talk to someone. Talking about problems can help us feel better. For instance, try talking to friends or relatives that you are close to.
  • Self-help books and websites. Many self-help books, websites, and apps are available to support people with anxiety difficulties. In addition, there are self-help computer packages available, which can be accessed through your GP.
  • Self-help groups. These are a good way of getting in touch with people who are going through similar experiences. You can look for these on the internet.

What professional help could I get?

You can talk to your GP about how you are feeling. They may recommend:

  • Medication
  • Talking therapy

Talking therapy

There are different types of talking therapy.

The most common is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. This encourages you to look at how your thoughts, feelings and behaviour interact and how they contribute to your experience of anxiety. The aim is to develop more helpful ways of thinking and behaving.

Where can I find out more?

Talk about anxiety

Last reviewed by the Mental Health Forum Web Team on 20 June 2021
Next review due: 20 June 2024