In a crisis?
For urgent medical attention, for example, if you’re worried about acting on thoughts of suicide, or you’ve seriously harmed yourself, you can call 999 or go straight to A&E.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a common feeling we experience when we’re worried, tense or afraid – a natural reaction to certain situations and circumstances, characterised by a fear or apprehension of what might happen, or what the future might hold. For example, it can be associated with circumstances such as illness, family upsets, moving house, exams, or friendship issues. It’s a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat; we experience it through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
This type of anxiety is very common and most of us learn to manage it, as it tends to pass fairly quickly. However, sometimes anxiety becomes so severe that it’s disabling and interferes with everyday life. On top of that, it often goes hand-in-hand with depression.
As with any condition, anxiety can also be challenging for family, friends and colleagues, as it can interfere with our ability to relate to others. It can be difficult for them to understand that reassurance and logic may not be comforting.
So…when is anxiety a mental health problem?
Anxiety can become a mental health problem if it impacts on your ability to live your life as fully as you want to. For instance, it may be a problem for you if:
- your feelings of anxiety are very strong or last for a long time;
- your fears or worries are out of proportion to the situation;
- you avoid situations that might cause you to feel anxious;
- your worries feel very distressing or are hard to control;
- you regularly experience symptoms of anxiety, which can include panic attacks;
- you find it hard to go about your everyday life or do things you enjoy.
Types of anxiety
If your symptoms fit a particular set of medical criteria, you might be diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder, although it’s also possible to experience problems with anxiety without having a specific diagnosis. Some commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders include:
- generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – people with GAD have frequent, uncontrollable worries about many different things in everyday life, making this quite a broad diagnosis, as there is a wide variety of symptoms of anxiety. This means one person’s experience with GAD can be completely different from someone else’s experience;
- social anxiety disorder – also known as social phobia, people with this diagnosis experience extreme fear or anxiety triggered by social situations, such as parties or workplaces;
- panic disorder – having regular or frequent panic attacks without a clear cause or trigger, feeling constantly afraid of having another panic attack – to the point this fear itself can trigger a panic attack;
- phobias – a phobia is an extreme fear or anxiety triggered by a particular situation, such as social situations, or a particular object, such as spiders;
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – you may be given this diagnosis if you develop anxiety problems after going through something you found traumatic. It can cause nightmares or flashbacks which can feel like you’re re-living the actual event;
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – if your anxiety problems involve having repetitive thoughts, urges or behaviours;
- health anxiety (sometimes called hypochondria) – experiencing obsessions and compulsions (urges) relating to illness, such as researching symptoms or checking to see whether you have them. It’s related to OCD;
- body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – experiencing obsessions and compulsions relating to your physical appearance;
- perinatal anxiety – some parents develop anxiety problems during pregnancy or in the first year following birth. It’s usually diagnosed in women, but it can affect men too.
What’s it like to have anxiety?
There are many feelings and behaviours associated with anxiety, and everyone’s experience is different. Some common signs of anxiety include:
Effects on your body:
- ‘butterflies’ in your stomach;
- feeling light-headed or dizzy;
- ‘pins and needles’;
- feeling restless or unable to sit still;
- rapid, shallow breathing
- loss of appetite;
- fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat, chest pain or tightness
- sweating or hot flushes;
- nausea (feeling sick);
- needing the toilet more/less often;
- difficulty sleeping.
Effects in your mind:
- feeling nervous, unable to relax;
- ‘catastrophising’ – viewing a situation as much worse than it actually is;
- feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down;
- feeling like others can see you’re anxious;
- feeling like you can’t stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying;
- wanting lots of reassurance from others, or worrying that they’re 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 also a type of dissociation).
You may also experience difficulty with aspects of everyday life, such as: looking after yourself; finding and/or maintaining a job; forming and/or maintaining relationships, and trying new things.
What can I do to help myself?
Living with anxiety can be very difficult, but there are steps you can take that might help:
- talk to someone you trust – talking about what makes you anxious could be a relief, if you are not able to open up to someone close, there are organisations and charities to help you;
- try to manage your worries – set a specific time aside to focus on your worries, write down your worries and keep them in a particular place;
- look after your physical health – try to get a good night’s sleep, think about your diet and try to do some physical activity;
- breathing exercises – these can help you feel more in control;
- keep a diary – it may help to note what happens when you get anxious, to help you notice triggers and early signs that the anxiety is building;
- peer support – contact a specialist organisation to find details of support groups and forums which bring together people who have had similar experiences to support each other.
There are various evidence-based treatments (i.e. treatments that science has proved to be effective) that have been found to help with anxiety problems and panic disorder.
The first step is to try to reach out to your GP, who may offer initially self-help resources (these can be delivered through workbooks or a computer-based programme), talking therapies (cognitive-behavioural therapy – CBT, or relaxation therapy) or medication. Your GP will help you and support you in finding the right treatment and support. They’ll do an assessment, which might include asking you to fill in a questionnaire about how often you feel worried, anxious and nervous. They should then explain your treatment options to you, and you can decide together what might suit you best.
Useful contacts – in a crisis
Dorset Mind isn’t a crisis service and we’re unable to help someone who may be in serious mental distress. Please use the following options if you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis.
Urgent medical attention>: If you or someone else is in serious risk of death or injury, call 999.
Other crisis situations:
- Call your GP or other allocated health professional, such as your Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) or Mental Health Crisis Team)
- Call NHS 111 (out-of-hours)
Someone to talk to: If you’re desperate to talk to someone, the Samaritans can help – call 116 123 for emotional support and a listening ear 24/7. This is a freephone number. It can be called from a mobile that has no credit and the call won’t appear on the phone bill.
Useful contacts – who else can help?
Helps people to recover from anxiety disorders.
Advice and support for people living with anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression. It has an infoline, text service and digital online therapy service (subscription required).
Online community for adults experiencing emotional or psychological distress. It’s free to use in many areas if you live in the UK, if you’re a student or if you have a referral from your GP.
Dorset Recovery Education Centre (REC) – Local! (18+)
Provides education and training for people affected by mental health problems, focusing on self-management, self-determination, choice and responsibility. Courses are available to people 18 and over with personal experience of mental distress and their carers/supporters, friends and family, and also for staff members who work alongside people suffering periods of ill health.
A computer-based CBT (CCBT) programme for treating panic and phobias (subscription required).
Provides information, support and advice for those with panic disorder, anxiety, phobias and OCD, including a forum and chat room.
Steps 2 Wellbeing – Local! (18+)
A free, confidential, NHS service for people aged 18+, providing psychological support across Dorset and Southampton for people registered at either a Dorset or Southampton GP surgery. As an IAPT service (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies), they accept self-referrals online and by telephone.
A charity providing free, confidential support for young people under 25 via online, social and mobile. The Mix provides support not only about mental health but also drink & drugs, money, sex & relationships, housing, work & study, among others. Their Crisis Messenger service is available 24/7.
Provides self-help therapy groups and support for those with OCD, phobias and related anxiety disorders.