What is Anxiety?

Written by Ellie Hughes, Provisional Psychologist

Anxiety is a term used to describe intense feelings of worry, fear or threat and can sometimes be difficult to control. Anxiety is a very normal part of human experience and typically occurs in response to a perceived or anticipated danger or threatening situation. Anxiety evokes physical changes in the body that are sometimes called ‘fight or flight’ responses, and these responses have served humans well through evolution to keep us safe from harms. For example, when approached by a large, threatening animal, the feeling of fear would prompt humans to potentially run away or attempt to fight off the animal. The physical responses may include increased heart rate and quickened breathing which prepare the body for action. Even today, this response is vital for human survival. Sometimes the flight or fight response system becomes activated without any real threat or danger, for example, during public speaking or preparation for an exam. Although the perceived threat is not life threatening, there is usually some fear of adverse outcome (e.g. social ridicule or failing the exam) and physical symptoms like sweating, a pounding heart, foot tapping, and difficulty concentrating may occur. For most people, anxiety comes and goes, and is managed in individual ways. For others, feelings of anxiety may begin to over generalise to typically non-threatening every-day situations where they may experience intense physical symptoms and racing thoughts that feel unmanageable and persistent. Anxiety can become a problem if it begins to impact different areas of a person’s life, for example, prevents them completing important tasks or even from leaving the house. Anxiety can also begin to impact relationships, work and how people feel about themselves.

Symptoms of anxiety can include

- Feeling worried or afraid frequently

- Feeling tense, irritable, or restless

- Feeling panicked or nauseous

- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep

- Feeling tired or exhausted frequently

- Difficulty concentrating or experiencing ‘mind blanks’

- Muscle tension, skin picking or teeth grinding

- Shaking in the hands or an upset stomach

- Increased heart rate and breathing

Anxiety is a common human experience and there are evidenced-based treatments including therapy and/or medications that can help. If you feel you are experiencing anxiety and it is beginning to concern you or interfere with parts of your everyday living, it may be time to speak with a health professional for assistance.

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