Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear or impending disaster and reflects the thoughts and bodily reactions a person has when they are presented with an event or situation that they cannot manage or undertake successfully. When a person is experiencing anxiety, their thoughts are actively assessing the situation, sometimes even automatically and outside of conscious attention, and developing predictions of how well they will cope based on past experiences.
Although some anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation, when the anxiety level is too high a person may not come up with an effective way of managing the stressful or threatening situation. They might “freeze”, avoid the situation, or even fear they may do something that is out of character.
Anxiety generally causes people to experience the following responses:
- An intense physical response due to arousal of the nervous system leading to physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat.
- A cognitive response which refers to thoughts about the situation and the person’s ability to cope with it. For someone experiencing high anxiety this often means interpreting situations negatively and having unhelpful thoughts such as “This is really bad” or “I can’t cope with this”.
- A behavioural response which may include avoidance or uncharacteristic behaviour including aggression, restlessness or irrational behaviour such as repeated checking.
- An emotional response reflecting the high level of distress the person is experiencing.
The experience of anxiety will vary from person to person. Central features of anxiety include ongoing worry or thoughts that are distressing and that interfere with daily living. In addition to worry or negative thinking, symptoms of anxiety may include: confusion, trembling, sweating, faintness or dizziness, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, upset stomach or nausea, restlessness, avoidance behaviour and irritability.
Anxiety can manifest in a number of disorders:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder – This disorder involves persistent and excessive worry, often about daily situations like work, family or health, with associated physical symptoms. This worry can be difficult to control, leading to problems in concentration, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.
Specific phobia – People with a specific phobia experience extreme anxiety and fear if exposed to a particular feared object or situation. Common phobias include fear of flying, spiders and other animals, heights or small spaces.
Panic Disorder – Panic Disorder occurs when a person has sudden surges of overwhelming fear that come without warning. These panic attacks often only last a few minutes, but repeated episodes may continue to occur.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – In OCD a person has repeated, upsetting thoughts called obsessions (e.g., “there are germs everywhere”). To make these thoughts go away, the person will often perform certain behaviours, called compulsions, over and over again (e.g., repeated hand washing). These compulsions can take over a person’s life and while people with OCD usually know that their obsessions and compulsions are an over-reaction, they can’t stop them.
Social Anxiety Disorder – In Social Anxiety Disorder the person has severe anxiety about being criticised or negatively evaluated by others. This leads to the person avoiding social events and being afraid of doing something that leads to embarrassment or humiliation.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) –PTSD can occur after exposure to a frightening and traumatic event. People with PTSD re-experience the traumatic event through memories and/or dreams, they tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event, and are extremely sensitive to normal life experiences that are associated with the event. Read more on PTSD.