What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a word we use to describe feelings of unease, worry and fear. It incorporates both the emotions and the physical sensations we might experience when we are worried or nervous about something. Although we usually find it unpleasant, anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response – our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened.
We all know what it’s like to feel anxious from time to time. It’s common to feel tense, nervous and perhaps fearful at the thought of a stressful event or decision you’re facing – especially if it could have a big impact on your life. For example:
sitting an exam
going into hospital
attending an interview
starting a new job
moving away from home
having a baby
being diagnosed with an illness
deciding to get married or divorced
In situations like these it’s understandable to have worries about how you will perform, or what the outcome will be. For a short time you might even find it hard to sleep, eat or concentrate. Then usually, after a short while or when the situation has passed, the feelings of worry stop.
What is the ‘fight or flight’ response?
Like all other animals, human beings have evolved ways to help us protect ourselves from dangerous, life-threatening situations. When you feel under threat your body releases hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, which help physically prepare you to either fight the danger or run away from it. These hormones can:
make you feel more alert, so you can act faster
make your heart beat faster to carry blood quickly to where it’s needed most
Then when you feel the danger has passed, your body releases other hormones to help your muscles relax, which may cause you to shake.
This is commonly called the ‘fight or flight’ response – it’s something that happens automatically in our bodies, and we have no control over it. In modern society we don’t usually face situations where we need to physically fight or flee from danger, but our biological response to feeling threatened is still the same.
When does anxiety become a mental health problem?
Because anxiety is a normal human experience, it’s sometimes hard to know when it’s becoming a problem for you – but if your feelings of anxiety are very strong, or last for a long time, it can be overwhelming.
You might find that you’re worrying all the time, perhaps about things that are a regular part of everyday life, or about things that aren’t likely to happen – or even worrying about worrying.
You might regularly experience unpleasant physical and psychological effects of anxiety, and maybe panic attacks.
Depending on the kind of problems you experience, you might be given a diagnosis of a specific anxiety disorder.