Anxiety is a natural part of our emotional makeup and is the mechanism by which our body prepares for a potentially dangerous situation. It is important to recognise that those “butterflies in the stomach” that we associate with anxiety are a natural reaction, both to positive and negative situations. Sometimes however, anxiety can move beyond a reasonable reaction and lead to an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of anxiety

There are some clear physical, psychological and behavioural responses associated with anxiety. Some of the most common physical symptoms are: shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pains, trembling and shaking, dry mouth, headaches, nausea and increased perspiration. Psychological symptoms are focused around the thoughts and feelings we have in response to anxiety. For example, you may find yourself on edge, and alert to everything around you. It may be that you feel you are going to have a heart attack or it may be that you are constantly thinking something bad is going to happen, either to you or to those around you. Behavioural symptoms are evident when these thoughts and feelings interfere with other parts of your life, such as social interaction with friends and family or perhaps they prevent you from doing your job properly. The most common behavioural symptom (that is, the action we take when we are anxious) is avoidance. The relief of avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation can seem like a sensible solution at the time. The reality is that it is generally short term and when faced with the same situation anxiety often returns. The previous act of avoidance serves to psychologically reinforce the fear of what may happen.  

Anxiety disorders

When anxiety steps over the boundary from what may be considered a natural response then it can lead to an anxiety disorder. The most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders are: Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – a persistent feeling of anxiety, which affects your daily life and is not associated with anything specifically. GAD is often connected with physical symptoms such as insomnia, upset stomach and fatigue. Panic disorder – repeated panic attacks that often come without warning and with no apparent trigger. You are constantly worried about the next attack. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a diagnosis you might be given if your anxiety leads to unwelcome thoughts and behaviours that cannot be stopped or controlled. It may include obsessions that something bad will happen unless you perform a certain action repeatedly.   Phobias – a phobia is an intense fear of an object, action or a situation, even when it is very unlikely to be harmful to you. Anxiety is triggered and can lead to extreme behaviour to avoid the fear. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – you may be given a diagnosis of PTSD if you develop intense feelings of anxiety after a traumatic event. Symptoms include reliving all the fear and anxiety of the actual event through flashbacks and nightmares. If your anxiety is severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on your daily life then it may be a good idea to talk to someone – your GP in the first instance. Working with a qualified counsellor or therapist can help you to understand the causes of your anxiety, and to find strategies to manage it.