Anxiety in adults

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear. Everyone feels anxious at some point in their life, but for some people it can be an on-going problem. Anxiety can have both psychological and physical symptoms.

Symptoms of anxiety 

A little bit of anxiety can be helpful, for example, feeling anxious before an exam might make you more alert and improve your performance. But too much anxiety could make you tired and unable to concentrate.

Anxiety can have both psychological and physical symptoms. Psychological symptoms can include:

  • feeling worried or uneasy a lot of the time
  • having difficulty sleeping, which makes you feel tired
  • not being able to concentrate
  • being irritable
  • being extra alert
  • feeling on edge or not being able to relax
  • needing frequent reassurance from other people
  • feeling tearful

When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, your body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These cause the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as an increased heart rate and increased sweating.

Physical symptoms can include:

Is anxiety bad for you? 

A little anxiety is fine, but long-term anxiety may cause more serious health problems, such as high blood pressure (hypertension). You may also be more likely to develop infections. If you’re feeling anxious all the time, or it’s affecting your day-to-day life, you may have an anxiety disorder or a panic disorder.

Anxiety disorders 

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorders. It is estimated that about 25 per cent of adults will suffer an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.

There are several conditions for which anxiety is the main symptom, for example, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder can all cause severe anxiety.

Below you will find information about generalised anxiety disorder in adults (GAD) and panic disorder.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) 

GAD is a common disorder. Its main feature is sustained and excessive worry about varied things (not one thing in particular) associated with heightened tension.

It can cause a change in your behaviour and the way you think and feel about things.

However, if you have GAD, it may not always be clear what you're feeling anxious about.

GAD can cause both psychological (mental) and physical symptoms. These vary from person to person, but can include:

 

Panic disorder 

A panic attack occurs when your body experiences a rush of intense psychological (mental) and physical symptoms.

You may experience an overwhelming sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety. As well as these feelings, you may also have physical symptoms such as:

Panic disorder is where you have recurring and regular panic attacks, often for no apparent reason, and between attacks you experience anxiety about having another panic attack.

The number of panic attacks you have will depend on how severe your condition is. Some people may have one or two attacks each month, while others may have several attacks a week.

Panic attacks can be very frightening and intense, but they're not dangerous. An attack won't cause you any physical harm, and it's unlikely that you'll be admitted to hospital if you've had a panic attack.

Treating anxiety disorders 

The aim of treating anxiety disorders is to ease the severity of your symptoms, or reduce the number of panic attacks you have.

Psychological therapy and medication are the two main types of treatment.

Medical conditions and driving 

You must tell the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA) if you suffer from anxiety and it affects your ability to drive safely.

Talk to your GP 

You should see your GP if you have symptoms of anxiety, GAD or panic disorder (see above).

Although it can sometimes be difficult to talk to someone else about your feelings, emotions and personal life, try not to feel anxious or embarrassed.

Your GP needs to gain a good understanding of your symptoms to make the correct diagnosis and recommend the most appropriate treatment for you.

Symptoms of panic/anxiety can be caused by other conditions, and you should see your GP to discuss your symptoms if you are experiencing difficulties.

It can be just as important to rule out these other problems or find ways to treat them.

What causes anxiety disorders? 

As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of anxiety disorders are not fully understood. However, it's thought the condition is probably linked to a combination of physical and psychological factors.

Things you can do to help yourself 

Panic disorder

There are several self-help techniques you can use to help treat the symptoms of panic disorder yourself.

Some of these techniques are listed below.

Stay where you are

If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack. The attack could last up to an hour, so you may need to pull over and park where it's safe to do so if you're driving.

Focus

If you have a panic attack, remind yourself that the frightening thoughts and sensations will eventually pass. During an attack, try to focus on something that's non-threatening and visible, such as the time passing on your watch or items in a supermarket.

Slow deep breathing

While you're having a panic attack, try to focus on your breathing. Feelings of panic and anxiety can get worse if you breathe too quickly. Try breathing slowly and deeply while counting to three on each breath in and out.

Challenge your fear

When you have a panic attack, try to identify what it is you fear and challenge it. You can achieve this by constantly reminding yourself that what you fear isn't real and that it will pass in a few minutes.

Creative visualisation

During a panic attack, it can help to think of a place or a situation that makes you feel peaceful, relaxed or at ease. Once you have this image in your mind, try to focus your attention on it. It should help distract you from the situation and may also help ease your symptoms.

Don't fight a panic attack

Fighting a panic attack can often make it worse. Focus on the fact that the attack isn’t life threatening and will eventually end and try your best to let it pass.

Other ways to help ease symptoms of anxiety disorders

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, may help you combat stress and release tension. It also encourages your brain to release serotonin, which can improve your mood.

Learn to relax

As well as regular exercise, learning how to relax is important.

You may find relaxation and breathing exercises helpful, or you may prefer activities such as yoga or pilates to help you unwind.

Avoid caffeine

Drinking too much caffeine can make you more anxious than normal. This is because caffeine can disrupt your sleep and also speed up your heartbeat. If you're tired, you're less likely to be able to control your anxious feelings.

Avoiding drinks containing caffeine – such as coffee, tea, fizzy drinks and energy drinks – may help to reduce your anxiety levels.

Avoid smoking and drinking

Smoking and alcohol have been shown to make anxiety worse. Only drinking alcohol in moderation or stopping smoking may help to reduce your anxiety.

Contact support groups

Support groups can often arrange face-to-face meetings, where you can talk about your difficulties and problems with other people. Many support groups also provide support and guidance over the phone or in writing.

Ask your GP about local support groups for anxiety in your area.

Understanding your anxiety

Some people find that reading about anxiety can help them deal with their condition. There are many books and articles based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). These may help you understand your psychological problems better and learn ways to overcome them by changing your behaviour.

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed May 2018

This page is due for review June 2019

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