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What exactly is anxiety? - Notes from a therapist's desk

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

What is anxiety - Symtoms of Anxiety - Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Our anxiety response, in a nutshell, is our body's way of reacting to situations that might put us in danger, threaten our safety, or cause us stress. This can be a response to something happening right now but also to situations just about to happen or that we think will happen in the future.

The fact we are so good at anticipating things that might go wrong (rather than just reacting when they do) is what makes our anxiety response so much more complex than that of other animals.

Our anxiety response impacts our whole body. Anxiety can be experienced through changes in our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Although these changes are perfectly normal and natural, anxiety can begin to become a problem when it impacts your ability to live your day-to-day life the way you want to.

Anxiety Symptoms

When our anxiety response is triggered, our body releases hormones into our bloodstream to start physically preparing us to take action regarding this present or perceived threat. For our caveman ancestors, this treat would have been a sabertooth tiger or an unfriendly neighboring tribe. Once that threat had passed, the body would lower the stress hormone levels again until a new threat appeared.

In modern times, however, we might experience stress and anxiety as a response to certain everyday events and activities. For example, we might feel some anxiety before giving a presentation at work or about an upcoming essay deadline.

Although these are quite different 'dangers' (the danger of death vs the danger of embarrassment for example) our brain responds to both of them in the same way; by preparing us to fight, flee, or freeze.

We'll go into a bit more detail about what each of these responses means in other blog posts but depending on which one our body decides on, we will experience a range of different physical and mental symptoms.

Common Mental Symptoms of Anxiety

  • racing thoughts

  • difficult concentrating

  • over-thinking

  • feeling a sense of impending doom

  • changes in appetite

  • dissociation and derealisation

  • feeling irritable

  • heightened alertness

  • feeling on-edge

  • changes to sleeping patterns

  • A sense of wanting to flee

Common Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

  • dry mouth

  • feeling shaky

  • sweating

  • difficulty breathing

  • hot flushes

  • hair loss

  • feeling dizzy

  • stomach ache

  • feeling nauseous

  • increased heart rate

All of these physical, mental, and emotional responses feel incredibly unpleasant. As a result, we try very hard to avoid anxiety-provoking situations and this is particularly true for anyone who has an anxiety disorder; someone who struggles with excessive anxiety and fear.

Almost all anxiety disorders involve an element of avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations and a fear of anxiety itself that is driving that avoidance. People can experience this avoidance and anxiety for different types of experiences which is why we have unique terms for different anxiety disorders (e.g., social anxiety, health anxiety, & panic disorders).

Panic Attacks

What a panic attack looks like is going to be a bit different person to person but what they all share in common is an intense feeling of fear, dread, loss of control, or entrapment. This feeling can start small and then built to a point that feels overwhelming. You may also experience a sense of doom, imminent danger, or fear of dying.

You experience a panic attack when your body releases a large amount of adrenaline into your bloodstream at all at once. This is why a panic attack can often feel like it comes out of nowhere and without warning. The physical effects of adrenaline are also why people often think they are having a heart attack when they experience a panic attack for the first time.

Common Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • sudden and intense fear

  • feeling detached from your surroundings

  • a racing heart

  • heart palpitations

  • chest pains

  • racing thoughts

  • confusion

  • difficulty breathing

  • irrational thoughts

Do I need help with my anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are incredibly common with most adults going on to experience at least one episode of struggling with anxiety during their lives.

If your anxiety has begun to limit what you can do in your life, then you may be struggling with an anxiety disorder.

Some questions you can ask yourself to decide if you need help are:

  • Have I been consistently worried and on edge for some time?

  • Is my anxiety getting in the way of my work, school, or family responsibilities?

  • Do you have fears and worries that you cannot shake?

  • Do you have a constant fear that something will go wrong?

  • Are you avoiding everyday situations and activities in case they make you anxious?

  • Have you been experiencing panic attacks?

Getting Help

The good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Below are some suggestions of things you can try both by yourself and with professional help.

  • Connect with Others - Anxiety can trick us into feeling alone. Reach out to loved ones, make sure to see other people in person, and share what you are experiencing with others.

  • Get some physical movement in your day - Moving our bodies has been shown to be a great anxiety and stress buster. What movement looks like for you is going to be personal but some ideas might be going for a walk, putting on a favorite tune to have a dance, or going to the gym.

  • Be mindful about caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine - All of these substances have been shown to increase anxiety in their own way. Try to limit intake or switch to an option with no stimulant in it.

  • Speak to your doctor - Even if you do not want to go on medication, speaking to your doctor can provide you with an opportunity to discuss your symptoms with a health care professional. If you would like to try medication, your doctor can help you find the right one and work with you to create a medical treatment plan.

  • Access therapy - What kind of therapist would I be if I did not mention therapy in my list of suggestions. Therapy is a place to learn how to fully understand your anxiety and find ways of coping that are going to support you in the long term. There are a number of ways to access therapeutic support both through your doctor, charitable agencies, and private practitioners like myself.


If you would like support with your journey to changing your relationship to your anxiety get in touch to discuss how one-to-one counselling might help.


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