What is anxiety?
Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
Most people feel anxious at times. It’s particularly common to experience some anxiety while coping with stressful events or changes, especially if they could have a big impact on your life.
Understanding the ”fight, flight or freeze” response?
Like all animals, human beings have evolved ways to help us protect ourselves from danger. When we feel under threat our bodies react by releasing certain chemicals, which then
- make us feel more alert, so we can act faster
- make our hearts beat faster, quickly sending blood to where it’s needed most.
After we feel the threat has passed, our bodies release other hormones to help our muscles relax. This can sometimes cause us to shake. This is commonly called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response – it’s something that happens automatically in our bodies, and we have no control over it.
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety feels different for everyone. You might experience some of the things listed below, and you might also have other experiences or difficulties that aren’t listed here.
Effects on your body
- a churning feeling in your stomach
- feeling light-headed or dizzy
- pins and needles
- feeling restless or unable to sit still
headaches, backache or other aches and pains
- faster breathing
- a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
- sweating or hot flushes
- problems sleeping
- grinding your teeth, especially at night
- nausea (feeling sick)
Effects on your mind
- feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
- having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
- feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
- feeling like other people can see you’re anxious and are looking at you
- feeling like you can’t stop worrying, or those bad things will happen if you stop worrying
- worrying about anxiety itself, for example, worrying about when panic attacks might happen
- wanting lots of reassurance from other people or worrying that people are angry or upset with you
- worrying that you’re losing touch with reality
- rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
- depersonalisation – feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you’re watching someone else (this is a type of dissociation)
- derealisation – feeling disconnected from the world around you, or like the world isn’t real (this is a type of dissociation)
- worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future
How else might anxiety affect my life?
Anxiety symptoms can last for a long time or come and go. You might find you have difficulty with day-to-day aspects of your life, including:
- looking after yourself
- forming or maintaining relationships with peers and others
- trying new things
- simply enjoying your leisure time.
How can I help myself?
Living with anxiety can be very difficult, but there are some suggestions and steps for you to consider that might help you to cope better with your anxiety:
Talk to someone you trust
Talking to someone you trust about what’s making you anxious could be a relief. It may be that just having someone listen to you and show they care can help in itself. Sharing her experiences of anxiety with others helps you to process and regulate your anxious feelings.
Try to manage your worries
It can be really hard to stop worrying when you have anxiety. You might have worries you can’t control. Or you might feel like you need to keep worrying because it feels useful – or those bad things might happen if you stop.
It can be helpful to try different ways of addressing these worries. For example, you could:
- Set aside a specific time to focus on your worries – so you can reassure yourself you haven’t forgotten to think about them. Some people find it helps to set a timer.
- Write down your worries and keep them in a particular place – for example, you could write them in a notebook, or on pieces of paper, you put them in an envelope or jar.
Improve your self-care
Look after your physical health. Try to get enough sleep. Sleep can give you the energy to cope with difficult feelings and experiences. Think about your diet and aim to have snacks and meals that provide a wide variety and healthy range of nutrients in your diet. Finally, try to do some physical activity. Exercise can be really helpful for your mental well-being. (See our pages on physical activity for more information.)
Look after your mental health. Try finding something to learn about beyond what you need to do for school or work (something interesting and just for you), even if it’s just for five minutes a day. For example, you can exercise your brain by doing puzzles, trying a new recipe or learning a new language outside of the classroom. Also, you can relax your mind by watching TV, doing meditation, letting your mind wander, trying to do absolutely nothing for at least five minutes.
Try breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can help you cope and feel more in control. Practising deep breathing can be an effective tool in anxiety management. Start out by simply bringing your attention to your breathing. Place one hand on your abdomen, and one hand on your chest. When we are anxious, our breathing tends to be quick and shallow. If you are engaging in shallow breathing, the hand on your chest is the one more likely to be moving up and down. Notice which hand is moving, and how fast it is moving. Practice deep breathing at least two times per day for 7-10 minutes each time.
Other breathing techniques, such as mindfulness and progressive muscular relaxation breathing are helpful for coping with physical feelings of anxiety. However, it’s best to try these techniques with a trained professional if possible or to get advice from a doctor or therapist before trying it by yourself.
Keep a diary
It might help to make a note of what happens when you get anxious or have a panic attack. This could help you spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you, or notice early signs that they are beginning to happen. You could also make a note of what’s going well. Living with anxiety can mean you think a lot about things that worry you or are hard to do. It’s important to be kind to yourself and notice the good things too.