As many as one in six people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives. More than just being nervous, anxiety can be an upsetting, disruptive experience. This guide will lay out what anxiety is, how to recognise it, and how you can find help.
What is anxiety?
In general, feeling anxious means feeling tense, worried, or afraid. We often experience anxiety before things that scare us or that feel really important - a major exam or a big interview, for example. It’s a very normal experience, and our guide Accessing support for stress offers some tips for managing this form of anxiety.
Sometimes, however, anxiety isn’t limited to stressful events or scary problems - it becomes a mental health condition. If you’re feeling anxious all the time, or in a way that severely impacts your daily life, you may have an anxiety condition.
Different anxiety conditions are usually defined by how you experience your anxiety, or when. For example, social phobia is a type of anxiety triggered by social situations, like meeting new people. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), on the other hand, is a constant state of high anxiety. In other words, ‘anxiety’ as a category is big and vague, but there are lots of more specific diagnoses you might hear about.
Why do we feel anxiety?
Feelings of anxiety come from our natural internal defence mechanisms, human traits that have developed over millennia. Back before we had houses and cars and technology to keep us safe and get us around, anxiety helped keep humans alert to danger, and enabled them to respond quickly to predators or other threats. The pounding heart and shaky shot of adrenaline that come with anxiety were actually meant to help us escape or fight off predators - you may have heard it called the ‘fight or flight’ response. We experience anxiety before scary events because that’s still how our bodies naturally react to things we perceive as threats… even though adrenaline probably isn’t going to help you beat up your maths exam. But people with anxiety conditions experience these heightened responses in everyday situations, where they’re even less helpful.
Sometimes, people can point to a cause for their anxiety, like a big change in their life that has left them feeling unsettled, a build-up of stress, or a traumatic incident like a loss. Other times, as with so many mental health conditions, it just seems to come out of nowhere.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
As mentioned, different anxiety disorders work in different ways, at different times. Symptoms of anxiety can be emotional, psychological, and even physical. There are some common symptoms you’ll want to look for if you think you might have an anxiety condition, though.
Physical symptoms include:
- an increased heart rate
- increased muscle tension
- ‘jelly legs’
- hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
- feeling sick
- a dry mouth
Some emotional and psychological symptoms might include:
- feeling on edge and alert to everything around you
- feeling like everyone is looking at you
- thinking that you might die
- thinking that you might lose control
- feeling compelled to avoid or leave a given situation or wanting to run away
Accessing help for anxiety
There are many techniques for managing anxiety on your own, but when you’re experiencing an anxiety condition rather than more everyday nervousness, it can be hard to implement them without help from a therapist or counsellor. If you’re in the midst of an episode of anxiety, try yoga or other breathing exercises, mindfulness practise (check out our guide), or listening to music to calm yourself down in the moment. If there are songs, yoga videos, or meditations that you really like, it can be useful to have them ready to go on your computer or phone so that you can turn to them as soon as you need them.
Support at school, college or university
It’s important to share your anxiety diagnosis with your school or university so that they can help you make sure it doesn’t impact your studies. Lots of people’s anxiety gets triggered by things like schoolwork, exams, or negative marks or feedback, and it’s important not to let that derail you… even if the idea of reaching out to somebody for help makes you feel anxious. These services exist to help you, but they can’t do it if they don’t know you’re struggling.
Once you’ve let your university know what’s up, they’ll be able to give you access to lots of resources, including giving your teachers a heads-up about your diagnosis if they need to know, potentially adjusting deadlines, or providing alternate ways and places to take exams.
Common symptoms of anxiety are fear and shame, and these can make it really, really hard to let people know what’s going on. This can be especially true at school, where you might be afraid of having your teachers see you as needy, or a failure. But needing help with anxiety doesn’t make you a failure, and the access and support services at your school won’t judge you for coming to them for help - it’s why they exist!
Your local GP or family doctor is a good first port of call to get medical and practical advice about anxiety and its symptoms. They will be able to help you explore things like anxiety medication and anxiety focused therapy. Your doctor can help you decide whether or not medication is the right path for you, and if so, which options will suit your needs. If you decide to go with medication, finding the right kind sometimes takes a bit of trial and error, so don’t worry if you end up needing to try something new.
Your doctor can also refer you to a counsellor or therapist, who can work alongside the medication (if you’re taking it) to find strategies to cope with your anxiety in everyday life and try and get to the root causes of these feelings in hopes of making you feel better. Just like medication, there are tons of different styles of counselling and therapy, and you might need to do some research and talk to your doctor to decide which is best for you.
If you’re at uni, you’ll have mental health services that you can access directly. These might include one-on-one counselling or some group therapy options.
Good stuff from elsewhere
Free online support for a range of mental health needs, including anxiety.
Breathing techniques to calm anxiety
Yoga for Anxiety