Understanding anxiety: Explanation, help and advice

Anxiety is a common experience. Whether it's that knot in your stomach before a big presentation or the racing thoughts that keep you awake at night – these are all normal reactions to stress. But for some people, anxiety becomes overwhelming and interferes with daily life. Here, I will help you to understand anxiety better.


What exactly is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease. It's a natural human response to perceived threats or danger. However, when it becomes excessive, persistent, and starts impacting your life, it can be classified as an anxiety disorder.

Think of it as an alarm system in your body. When you sense danger, your anxiety kicks in to alert you and prepare you to take action. This can be helpful, like giving you a burst of energy to avoid an accident. But sometimes, the alarm system gets stuck on "high." This is when anxiety becomes a problem.

What can happen when anxiety is excessive?

  • You start to worry constantly, even about things that are unlikely to happen.
  • You feel physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, or shortness of breath.
  • You avoid situations that you think might make you anxious.

This can make it difficult to live your life normally.

How can you tell the difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder?

Normal anxiety is usually short-lived and fades once the stressful situation is over. An anxiety disorder, however, can be constant or triggered by seemingly insignificant events. It can lead to avoidance behaviours, and physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath, and significantly impact your work, relationships, and overall well-being.

What are some common types of anxiety disorders?

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

This is a type of anxiety disorder characterised by excessive, uncontrollable worry about a wide range of things, rather than specific threats or situations. Unlike someone with a phobia who might be terrified of spiders, someone with GAD might worry excessively about finances, health, work, relationships, or even everyday minor things.

  • Excessive worry: The worry in GAD is typically out of proportion to the situation and persists even when there's no real cause for concern.
  • Difficulties controlling worry: People with GAD find it very difficult to stop worrying, even if they want to.
  • Wide range of worries: Unlike phobias which target specific fears, GAD involves worry about many different things in life.
  • Long-term: This excessive worry isn't just a temporary reaction to stress, it persists for at least six months in most cases.
  • Impacts daily life: The worry and anxiety associated with GAD can significantly interfere with a person's ability to function at work, school, and in relationships.

Common symptoms of GAD:

  • constant feeling of restlessness or nervousness
  • trouble concentrating or focusing
  • fatigue
  • muscle tension
  • difficulty sleeping
  • irritability
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • rapid heartbeat

Social anxiety disorder

A fear of social situations due to intense self-consciousness and worry about being judged or scrutinised. Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is an anxiety disorder characterised by an intense and persistent fear of social situations. People with social anxiety worry excessively about being judged, scrutinised, or humiliated by others. This fear can be so overwhelming that it leads to avoidance behaviours, making it difficult to maintain relationships, perform well at work or school, or even complete everyday tasks.

Here's a deeper dive into social anxiety disorder:

  • Fear of scrutiny: The core of social anxiety lies in the intense fear of being negatively evaluated by others. People with social anxiety worry they'll appear anxious, incompetent, or unlikeable in social settings.
  • Social situations trigger anxiety: Simple interactions like making eye contact, giving presentations, or even eating in front of others can trigger intense anxiety for someone with social phobia.
  • Physical symptoms: The anticipation or experience of social situations can cause physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, rapid heartbeat, or nausea, further fuelling the fear of being judged.
  • Avoidance behaviours: To escape anxiety, people with social phobia often avoid social situations altogether. This can lead to isolation and hinder their personal and professional lives.

Social anxiety disorder is different from shyness. Shyness is a general discomfort in social situations, while social anxiety is a persistent and debilitating fear that significantly impacts daily life.

Signs that social anxiety might be a concern

  • You cancel plans or avoid social gatherings due to fear and anxiety.
  • You constantly worry about what others might think of you.
  • Simple social interactions cause you significant distress.
  • You believe you'll be embarrassed or humiliated in social situations.
  • You have physical symptoms like blushing or sweating during social interactions.

Panic disorder

Sudden and unexpected panic attacks with intense physical symptoms like chest tightness, dizziness, and difficulty breathing. Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder defined by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. These panic attacks are intense surges of overwhelming fear or discomfort that strike abruptly and reach their peak within minutes.

Here's a breakdown of what panic disorder entails:

  • Sudden and unexpected panic attacks: The defining feature of panic disorder is the experience of repeated panic attacks that come on out of the blue, often without any warning or clear trigger.
  • Intensity of panic attacks: Panic attacks themselves are incredibly frightening and can cause a variety of physical symptoms that mimic a heart attack or other medical emergency.
  • Fear of another attack: Following a panic attack, people with panic disorder often develop a fear of having another one. This fear can lead to constant worry and avoidance behaviours.

Let's delve deeper into the characteristics of panic attacks:

  • Physical symptoms: During a panic attack, a surge of adrenaline triggers physical symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, chest pain, and numbness or tingling sensations.
  • Psychological symptoms: The physical symptoms are accompanied by intense feelings of fear, dread, or impending doom. There's also a sense of losing control or going crazy.
  • Short-lived: A panic attack typically peaks within minutes and subsides gradually over the next 30 minutes or so.

Living with the fear of panic attacks

The fear of having another panic attack can significantly impact a person's life. They might:

  • Avoid places or situations where they've had panic attacks before.
  • Become overly reliant on safety behaviours, like having a trusted person nearby.
  • Constantly on edge, anticipating the next attack.


Intense and irrational fears of specific objects or situations. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder characterised by intense and irrational fears of specific objects or situations. Unlike general anxiety, which focuses on a variety of worries, phobias target a very particular trigger.

Here's a breakdown of what phobias are:

  • Specific fears: Phobias are phobias because they target a very specific thing. This could be anything from animals (spiders, snakes) to situations (flying, heights) or even objects (blood, needles).
  • Irrational fear: The fear associated with phobias is considered irrational because the threat posed by the object or situation is usually very small or non-existent.
  • Overwhelming anxiety: Despite the lack of real danger, phobias trigger intense anxiety and even panic attacks when encountered.
  • Avoidance behaviour: People with phobias often go to great lengths to avoid their phobic triggers. This avoidance can significantly limit their daily lives.

Here are some examples of common phobias:

  • Animal phobias: Arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), cynophobia (fear of dogs)
  • Situational phobias: Acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), agoraphobia (fear of situations where escape might be difficult)
  • Blood-injection-injury phobias: Hemophobia (fear of blood), aichmophobia (fear of needles), trypanophobia (fear of injections)

The impact of phobias

While phobias might seem like a quirk, they can have a significant negative impact on a person's life. People with phobias might:

  1. Miss out on important experiences: For example, someone with a fear of flying might be unable to travel or visit loved ones who live far away.
  2. Experience limitations in work or school: A phobia of public speaking could hinder someone's career advancement.
  3. Develop isolation and social anxiety: The avoidance of phobic triggers can make it difficult to maintain social connections.

How can counselling, psychotherapy or hypnotherapy help with anxiety?

All three approaches - counselling, psychotherapy, and hypnotherapy - can be valuable tools in managing anxiety disorders.

Counselling can help you by providing

  • Safe space for exploration: A counsellor provides a safe and supportive space for you to explore the roots of your anxiety. You can discuss your worries, fears, and past experiences that might be contributing to your anxiety.
  • Psychoeducation: A form of therapy intervention that involves educating and empowering clients about their mental health conditions. It's like learning about your mind and how to take care of it, similar to physical education where you learn about your body.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): Many counsellors use CBT, a form of therapy that helps you identify and challenge negative thought patterns that fuel anxiety. By learning to reframe your thinking, you can manage your emotional response to situations.
  • Coping mechanisms: Counselling can equip you with practical coping mechanisms to manage anxiety symptoms. This might include relaxation techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness exercises.

Psychotherapy can help you by providing

  • Deeper exploration: Psychotherapy offers a deeper exploration of the underlying causes of your anxiety. It can delve into past experiences, traumas, or unconscious beliefs that might be contributing to your anxiety.
  • Variety of techniques: Therapists use a variety of techniques depending on your specific needs. This could include psychodynamic therapy, interpersonal therapy, or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
  • Long-term management: Psychotherapy can help you develop long-term strategies for managing your anxiety and build emotional resilience.

Hypnotherapy can help you by

  • Relaxation and focus: Hypnotherapy can induce a state of deep relaxation and focused attention. This state can be helpful in managing anxiety symptoms like racing thoughts and physical tension.
  • Positive suggestion: While in a relaxed state, the hypnotherapist can use positive suggestions to help you reprogram your subconscious mind to respond differently to anxiety triggers.
  • Managing specific phobias: Hypnotherapy can be particularly effective for managing specific phobias, like fear of heights or public speaking.

Choosing the right approach

The best approach for you depends on your individual needs and preferences. Here are some things to consider:

  • Severity of anxiety: For mild anxiety, counselling with CBT might be sufficient. For more severe anxiety, psychotherapy might be more helpful.
  • Underlying causes: If you suspect past experiences are contributing to your anxiety, psychotherapy can offer deeper exploration.
  • Comfort level: Consider which approach you feel most comfortable with. Talk therapy might be a better fit if you prefer a more conversational approach, while hypnotherapy might be appealing if you're open to a more suggestive method.

If someone is struggling with anxiety, what's my advice?

Don't suffer in silence. Anxiety is a treatable condition. Consult your GP to rule out any underlying health issues which might be mimicking anxiety, and providing you're well, reach out to a qualified counsellor or therapist. There's also a wealth of self-help resources available online and in libraries.

Remember, you're not alone!

A qualified mental health professional can help you explore your options and determine the best approach for managing your anxiety. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, but with the right support, you can take the first step towards a calmer and more fulfilling life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Bristol, City of Bristol, BS7
Written by Kirsten Malcolm, MNCPS (Acc.) Psychotherapeutic Counsellor & Hypnotherapist
Bristol, City of Bristol, BS7

Hi, I'm Kirsten. A Mum to three grown-up 'children', a Wife, and a qualified, warm and compassionate Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Hypnotherapist and Mental Health & Wellbeing Blogger at www.freedomwiththerapy.com/blog

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals