Anxiety is a universal experience for humans (and animals) and has helped us survive as a species – so it’s not all bad…  In its ‘useful’ form, the feeling of anxiety alerts us to possible danger to ourselves or others, or to a ‘threat’ to our well-being, our functioning, our status, our success etc.  It prepares us for action which alleviates the anxiety and enables us to return to a non-anxious state (that is, a relaxed one).  Anxiety is different from fear: fear can be defined as a response to a definite, external, recognisable threat – whereas we may not know exactly what it is we’re anxious about or what we should actually do. At other times we may feel anxious about something specific – giving a speech, taking an exam, starting a new job etc.  This type of anxiety is temporary and we quickly revert back to ‘normal’ once the event is over.

Signs and symptoms

The five groups of physiological symptoms (most people have a mixture)

• Those produced by ‘autonomic arousal’: palpitations, heart racing, sweating, trembling, shaking or dry mouth.
• Those involving the chest or abdomen: shortness of breath, difficulty in catching breath, choking sensation, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress (stomach churning).
• Those involving the mental state: feelings of being dizzy or about to faint, derealisation (a sensation of things being ‘unreal’), depersonalisation (a sense of the self being distant and detached from the surroundings), fear of losing control, going mad, passing out or dying.
• Other general symptoms: hot flushes or cold chills, numbness, tingling sensations, muscle tension, aches and pains, restlessness, inability to relax, feeling keyed up, on edge or mentally tense, sensation of a lump in the throat or difficulty swallowing.
• Other non-specific symptoms such as exaggerated response to minor surprises or being startled, poor concentration (mind going back through worry), persistent irritability and difficulty going to sleep through worry.

And then there are those unpleasant cascades of worrying thoughts which feed the anxiety. Challenging and changing these negative thoughts – often a lifelong pattern of thinking – are fundamental to successful treatment.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety which doesn’t diminish and lasts for at least six months can be classified as a disorder. There are many types of anxiety disorders, each with a different set of symptoms, but the symptoms all cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread.  Whilst debilitating and extremely unpleasant, anxiety disorders are treatable and should be diagnosed as quickly as possible. Physical and psychological symptoms are damaging over a long period of time and, if left untreated, can develop into a more serious disorder.

Types of Anxiety Disorders


Research strongly suggests that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders (different approaches apply for different disorders, however).

CBT techniques can help you to change how you think (cognitions) and what you do (behaviour).  This is a collaborative approach to identify patterns of thinking, emotions and feelings, decide which are unhelpful and how they are affecting you, and how to change the unhelpful or damaging thoughts and behaviours.  Homework is involved!  But with commitment and perseverance, long term change for the better happens.

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