Anxiety can affect any of us, in different ways and at different times, whereas stress can come and go according to changes in the cause (e.g. work, relationship or money problems). Anxiety can persist; whether you know the cause or not. It can make you imagine that things in your life are worse than they really are, and can prevent you from confronting your fears – you might even think you’re going mad. However, it’s important to realise that anxiety is normal and is part of your body’s protective system.

Everyone has an internal alarm system that’s designed to protect you from danger. It enhances your alertness by giving you a boost of adrenaline. This increases your heart rate and the amount of oxygen going to your limbs (in caveman times, this was designed to help people to either fight, freeze or flee from danger). It’s also the cause of the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling that’s often associated with anxiety. The anxiety response caused by adrenaline can be triggered in everyday situations when stress has built up, often unknowingly.

Reducing your stress levels

You might know the cause of your anxiety: a traumatic incident, extreme stress or a challenging event (moving house, getting divorced, surgery etc). However, you might be able to identify the cause, which could bring you more distress. One approach to controlling your anxiety is to imagine your stress levels as being like a bucket of water. If you keep adding stressful issues to the bucket (even tiny ones like the school run or commuting to work), it will gradually fill up and will one day overflow. This explains why anxiety can sometimes seem to come from out of the blue, with no significant trigger. However, a very small issue might be the trigger that makes your bucket overflow and tips you over the edge. What you need is a leaky bucket, with lots of holes to reduce your overall stress levels. Each of these holes could be something positive that you do to manage your anxiety – such as yoga, exercise, reading, listening to music,  spending time with friends or family and accessing therapy/support.

Symptoms of anxiety

People often experience physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms when they feel anxious or stressed.

Some of the most common physical symptoms are:

  • Increased heart rate or increased muscle tension
  • ‘Jelly legs’ or tingling in the hands and feet
  • Hyperventilation (breathing too heavily) or dizziness
  • Difficulty in breathing or a tight band across the chest
  • Wanting to use the toilet more often
  • Feeling sick
  • Tension headaches
  • Hot flushes or increased perspiration
  • Dry mouth
  • Shaking or palpitations
  • Choking sensations

Some of the most common psychological symptoms include feeling that:

  • You might lose control and/or go ‘mad’; or you might die
  • You might have a heart attack/be sick/faint/have a brain tumour
  • People are looking at you and noticing your anxiety
  • Things are speeding up/slowing down
  • You’re detached from your environment and the people in it
  • You want to run away/escape from the situation
  • You’re on edge and alert to everything around you

The most common behavioural symptom involves avoiding the situation that makes you feel anxious. Although this can produce immediate relief, it’s only a short-term solution. The anxiety often returns the next time you’re in that situation – and avoiding it will only reinforce the feeling of danger. And it means that you’ll never find out whether your fear about the situation and what might happen is actually true

Generalised anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is the feeling of being anxious about almost everything for no apparent reason. If you’re affected by GAD, you’ll often feel unduly worried about a wide variety of issues (such as health, money, work, school and relationships) rather than one specific problem. While most of us worry or feel anxious at some point in our lives, if you have GAD, you’ll find it particularly difficult to control your worries. Your feelings of anxiety are more persistent and can often begin to affect your daily life.

DIY self diagnosis

If you can answer YES to most of these questions you might be experiencing GAD:

  • Have you felt nervous most days over the past six months?
  • Do you have problems falling asleep? Do you have bad dreams or wake up worrying?
  • Is your body very tense or uptight? Do you often want to shout or feel frustrated?

If so, we’d strongly advise you to seek further information and guidance from your GP, who will be able to make a formal diagnosis.

Recommended resources

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder: A brief guide covers everything you need to know about GAD. You can buy a copy from the Anxiety UK shop here.
  • Overcoming Worry and Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a step-by-step guide to self-improvement, which makes use of CBT techniques. You can buy this book from our online shop here.
  • Worry Box helps you to understand your anxiety and introduces you to a great way of fixing it. You can buy it from our online shop here.

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