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Mental Health Now factsheet: anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to everyday problems and threatening situations. Feeling anxious affects bodily sensations, thinking and how people behave. The level of anxiety experienced can range from mild uneasiness to a terrifying panic attack. 

Anxiety can become a problem, or an anxiety disorder, if it lasts too long, is more severe, is in response to the ‘wrong’ situation or if it interferes with a person’s relationships, work, or daily activities. 

Anxiety disorders are common. There are many types of anxiety disorders, including generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Common symptoms of anxiety

Each disorder has its own set of criteria, but some general symptoms of anxiety include:
  • Rapid, strong heartbeat, chest pain
  • Hyperventilation, shortness of breath
  • Nausea, diarrhoea, dry mouth
  • Sweating, dizziness, headache
  • Shaking, restlessness, muscle aches
  • Mind racing or going blank
  • Unrealistic and/or excessive fear and worry
  • Decreased concentration or memory
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Irritability, impatience, anger
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Unwanted unpleasant repetitive thoughts
  • Avoidance of situations
  • Distress in social situations and urges to escape
  • Repetitive compulsive behaviour, such as excessive checking, continual seeking of reassurance

Treatment and recovery

A variety of treatment options are available depending on the severity of the anxiety disorder and symptoms. Education and psychological approaches are available as well as treatment with medication.

Low-level psychological interventions include self-help materials with or without therapist contact, and psychoeducational groups. If needed, high-intensity psychological interventions, such as cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) or applied relaxation, are available, and/or drug treatment. Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is recommended to be offered to people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If further help is needed, input can be given from multi-agency teams and crisis services, in the form of complex drug and/or psychological treatment regimes. 

Supporting people with anxiety in the workplace

Approach them in a supportive manner and initiate a conversation where you express your concerns. Let them know that anxiety disorders are common, that effective help is available and skills can be learned to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety. Encourage the person to get professional help, usually initially by seeing their GP. In most cases, the sooner they get help the better their long-term recovery will be. 

If a person is having a panic attack, which is a distinct episode of high anxiety, with fear or discomfort that usually appears to start suddenly, ask them if they have had a panic attack before and what helped them. The same things may help again. Reassure the person they are having a panic attack and remind them that the frightening thoughts and sensations with eventually pass. Encourage the person to focus on something non-threatening and visible. For some people, focussing on slow breathing helps. 

Where to find out more