Anxiety is used to describe feelings of worry, fear and unease. Typically, it incorporates both the emotional and physical sensations we experience when worried or nervous. Anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response and, while unpleasant, this is a normal reaction when our body perceives a threat.
We will all feel anxious at some time and it’s very common to feel tense or unsure about a potentially stressful situation, such as an exam, starting a new job, or moving home. However, some of us will be affected more than others. Despite being a normal experience, if these feelings are very strong or are lasting a long time, it can be overwhelming.
This fact-sheet will help you understand anxiety as a mental health problem and when to seek help. We will explore the common anxiety disorders and the treatment available, including anxiety counselling.
On this page
- What is anxiety?
- When is the right time to seek help?
- Anxiety disorders
- Treatment for anxiety
- Anxiety counselling
What is anxiety?
Anxiety can make you imagine things are worse than they are and prevent you from carrying out everyday tasks, or even leaving the house. Where stress is something that will come and go, anxiety can affect a person even if the cause is unclear.
When under stress, our ‘fight or flight’ response will turn on. This acts as an internal alarm system, designed to protect us from danger in the wild. These days, we can recognise this system through the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ we feel when we're nervous. Anxiety, however, may cause this response to activate at inappropriate moments. You may feel this during normal, non-threatening situations.
Anxiety UK describes anxiety like a bucket of water;
If we keep adding stressors to the bucket (even tiny ones, like the school run or commuting to work), over time it fills up until one day it overflows. This can be a good way of looking at anxiety as it explains why sometimes it can seem to come out of the blue, with no significant trigger.
While some will know what causes their anxiety; after experiencing a traumatic event, for example, others will not have such an identifiable reason. Not knowing the cause of anxiety can sometimes cause a person to experience further distress - if they don’t know the trigger, how can they overcome it?
When is the right time to seek help?
Anxiety is a problem that can get worse if the stressors continue to build up. People may feel ashamed to ask for help, or believe that it’s not ‘that big a problem’ thus covering their feelings and dealing with it alone. It’s important to know that you deserve support and as lonely as you feel, people care. If you’re not comfortable talking to a loved one, there are many other platforms available. Online support groups and anxiety counselling give you the opportunity to talk to people who understand you.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms, it is important you consult your GP.
Common anxiety disorders include:
Generalised anxiety disorder - If you often feel anxious or fearful, but not anxious about a specific event or experience, you may be diagnosed with GAD. Typically, these feelings are related to everyday tasks, such as stress at home or work, but other times you may not know why you are feeling anxious.
Phobias - A phobia is an intense fear of something - no matter how dangerous or threatening it may be to you. Coming into close contact with the feared situation may cause you to feel anxious. In some cases, even the thought of said situation can trigger anxiety.
Panic disorder - If you experience seemingly unpredictable panic attacks, and are unable to identify a trigger, you may be diagnosed with panic disorder. Symptoms include shortness of breath, feeling faint and trembling.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) - OCD comprises of obsessional thoughts followed by compulsive urges. The obsessions are recurring urges, thoughts or images that can cause you to feel anxious. Compulsions are the actions or thoughts that you feel the need to do or repeat. Compulsions are typically a response to ease the anxiety of an obsession.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - After experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, and are experiencing flashbacks or nightmares, you may be diagnosed with PTSD. These reactions can make you feel like you’re reliving the fear and anxiety over and over again.
See our fact-sheets for more information on anxiety disorders.
Treatment for anxiety
If you are experiencing anxiety, it’s important that you contact your doctor. They can assess your feelings and symptoms, and discuss a suitable treatment option. Anxiety treatment aims to reduce symptoms and teach you coping methods - so that you can manage feelings before they become too severe.
There are many treatment options available, though which one/s your GP offers will depend on your diagnosis. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) you should be offered a talking treatment before prescribing medication.
Counselling for anxiety is one form of treatment. Talking to a counsellor can help in many ways, including helping you understand what may be causing your anxiety, and teaching you coping techniques. There are many types of talking therapies available, though the most commonly prescribed is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Cognitive behavioural therapy looks to help you manage problems by enabling you to recognise how your thoughts affect both your feeling and behaviour. CBT combines two approaches; examining your thoughts and the way you behave. This helps to break any overwhelming problems down into smaller, more manageable tasks.
Mindfulness for anxiety
Mindfulness exercises for anxiety can help you manage symptoms. The aim of mindfulness is to develop your awareness of the present moment. It can teach you to be more appreciative, self-compassionate and non-judgemental. Mindfulness can help you gain greater clarity on your surroundings, which can help you recognise what triggers your anxiety and how to deal with them effectively.
While feeling anxious is a natural response, suffering from anxiety long-term can be very intense. Anxiety will affect individuals differently, however, there are common symptoms listed below.
- rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
- fast breathing
- trouble sleeping
- feeling irritable
- lack of concentration
- panic attacks
Tips for managing anxiety
Self-care goes hand in hand with looking after your mental health. Learning techniques and methods to help you manage your anxiety can really make a difference. It's important to not let the fear of your anxiety rule your life and having some self-care methods in place can help you cope with symptoms.
Talk to someone
Talking to someone you trust can ease the pressure and will often give you a sense of relief. It's easy to keep our feelings to ourselves, but talking to a friend, family member or even a professional can be so beneficial. Whether they can offer advice or simply listen, talking to someone can remind you that people care - even when it feels like you’re on your own.
Focus on your breathing
When feeling anxious or the onset of a panic attack, it’s easy to forget simple things, like breathing. But taking a moment to focus solely on your breath can calm you and help you manage the anxiety. Try breathing deeply through your nose for four seconds. Exhale through your mouth for another four, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Continue this until your feelings pass.
Keep a diary
Recording your feelings and what happens every time you feel anxious can help you become more aware of your triggers. Recording when, what, and how the anxiety attacks come on can help you understand how to cope with future situations. Be sure to record successfully managed experiences with your anxiety too, this can act as a reminder that you are in control.
Stay active and eat healthily
Coffee, alcohol and cigarettes are stimulants and may cause you to feel worse, or make it difficult for you to relax. Staying active and moving your body may help you manage your anxiety as it's an opportunity to release any stress and refocus. You don’t have to follow a strict diet or a tough workout regime, but eating healthy foods and staying active can improve overall well-being.
Consider complementary therapies
Complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, massage and aromatherapy focus on relaxation. There are many therapies available, so if you find it difficult to relax on your own, see if one of these work for you. Improving relaxation can also improve sleep, and help you manage your symptoms more effectively.
Join a support group
Joining a support group - either online or face-to-face - can give you the opportunity to talk to people who share similar experiences. Talking about the challenges you face and sharing what you’re going through can remind you that you’re not alone, and help is available.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
There are currently no laws in place stipulating what training and qualifications a counsellor must have in order to treat anxiety. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have developed a set of guidelines that provide advice about the recommended treatments.
In the first instance, those suffering from anxiety should be offered access to a support group and self-help information recommendations by their doctor. If this doesn’t help, or the anxiety is more severe, psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy and/or applied relaxation are recommended. Further treatment may require medication.
Read the full NICE guidelines:
What our experts say
- When perfectionism and to-do lists lead to illness
Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP17th December, 2017
- Why do highly driven people get so burnt out? And is there a way out?
Adriana Gordon - London Private Counselling (PGDip, Reg MBACP)9th December, 2017
- What is mindfulness for?
Greg Savva, Counselling in Twickenham & Whitton, Masters Degree, UKCP,6th December, 2017
- The not-so-obvious anxieties of leadership in organisations
Alessio Rizzo, MA, MSc, MBACP3rd December, 2017
- What is generalised anxiety disorder? (GAD)
Jennifer Jowles BSc (hons) Psych, Dip. Couns, Registered MBACP29th November, 2017
- Anxiety and our inner needs
Monika Bassani MNCS (Accredited & Registered )23rd November, 2017
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