Understanding Anxiety

Understanding anxiety

Meghan Betts


An overwhelming feeling of worry and fear, a racing heart, a trembling in my hands and knees I couldn’t stop… these are all experiences I went through on a near-daily basis before I learnt to manage my anxiety. The total feeling of being completely out of control, even of my own thoughts, was terrifying and heavily impacted my everyday life. But understanding anxiety is the first step to managing your anxiety, and I promise you, it can and will get better.

What is anxiety?

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiousness and worry in response to stressful situations or when we feel under pressure, but these feelings usually pass once the situation is over.

For people with anxiety disorders these feelings don’t go away and they experience persistent and excessive worry that is so distressing it can interfere with their ability to enjoy everyday life. There may not even be an obvious or particular reason that has triggered the anxiety but the intense and uncontrollable feelings of worry and fear, even if these concerns are unrealistic or irrational, are very real.

Common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:


  • Physical – racing heart, tight chest, rapid breathing, hot and cold flushes, restlessness, feeling tense and wound up or panic attacks (extreme episodes of intense anxiety and fear that develop abruptly and peaks within minutes)


  • Psychological – excessive fear and worry, catastrophising, obsessive thinking


  • Behavioural – avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious, impacting work, study or social life.



Anxiety is caused by a combination of factors, from genetics to life experiences to personality traits. Most people with anxiety were likely born with a genetic predisposition to developing an anxiety disorder, meaning they may be more vulnerable to developing anxiety following additional triggers. Common triggers may include work stress, family or relationship problems, major emotional shock following a traumatic event, abuse or grief.

Certain chronic physical illnesses can contribute to anxiety disorders such as diabetes, asthma or hypertension and heart disease. Others conditions may mimic the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Therefore it can be useful to consult your doctor to determine whether there is an underlying medical cause for your anxiety. Additionally, other mental health conditions such as depression or substance can come hand in hand with anxiety so it is important to be assessed and receive help for all of these conditions.


Types of anxiety

Anxiety disorders come in many different forms including:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – experiencing feelings of anxiety and worry over multiple different things most days over a period of over 6 months.
  • Social phobia – experiencing an intense fear of criticism, embarrassment and humiliation in everyday situations including public speaking, eating in public, making small talk or taking the lead at work.
  • Specific phobias – feeling intense fear about a particular object or situation and potentially going to great lengths to avoid it. There are many different types of phobia, for example needles or flying on a plane.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – anxiety caused by persistent unwanted or intrusive thoughts and fears. People with OCD often perform certain behaviours or rituals in an attempt to relieve their anxiety.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – ongoing symptoms including difficulty sleeping and distressing flashbacks or dreams following a traumatic event such as war, assault, an accident etc.
  • Panic disorder – intense, overwhelming and uncontrollable feelings of fear and anxiety that develop suddenly and can peak within minutes. Panic attacks may also cause physical symptoms including shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness and excessive perspiration. If a person experiences recurrent panic attacks or persistently fears having one, they are diagnosed with a panic disorder.


Treating anxiety

There is no ‘one size fits all’ for anxiety or its treatment. Which treatment option(s) will work best for you depends on what type of anxiety you are experiencing as well as you as an individual. It will take time, but you will be able to control your anxiety so that it no longer controls you.

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