What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a common phenomenon and, in some circumstances, is entirely normal, for example, before an interview or a driving test. Indeed, a certain amount of anxiety has been shown to improve performance in these situations. Like depression, the word 'anxiety' has become commonplace and has come to mean a particularly troublesome worry. However, clinical anxiety disorders can be extremely debilitating and are common; there are over 8 million people suffering with these disorders in the UK and, at any one time, nearly 6 in 100 people over the age of 16 in England are suffering with an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety can occur in a free-floating way, which is known as generalised anxiety disorder. Symptoms include feelings of apprehension, tension (for example, fidgeting, inability to relax and tension headaches) and physical symptoms (for example, sweating, breathlessness and palpitations).

Anxiety can also occur in more specific situations, for example, being in crowded places, social situations or any abnormally-feared situation (such as being faced with animals or needles); these are known as phobic anxiety disorders. These disorders are not short-lived and a diagnosis is made if someone has experiences these symptoms for most days for at least several weeks, if not months.

A related disorder is panic disorder, when someone has experience at least three panic attacks in three weeks. A panic attack is an episode of extreme and severe anxiety which comes on suddenly, and consists of at least four common symptoms, such as palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath or feelings of choking or dying. These attacks occur in an unpredictable fashion when there is no genuine danger, often out of the blue (a person does not suffer significantly with anxiety in between attacks).

Risk factors for anxiety

Certain risk factors, such as a similar type of illness in family members, early negative situational experiences or exposure to separation in early life, may indicate why someone might have developed an anxiety disorder but cannot be changed. There are other risk factors, such as chemical abnormalities in the brain and learned abnormal behaviour in certain situations, which maintain distressing levels of anxiety if not tackled but which are capable of being changed and offer good targets for treatment.

Treatment for anxiety

The most common treatment for anxiety disorders is psychological therapy, usually cognitive-behavioural therapy, which aims to alter the abnormal thoughts and behaviours which arise in specific situations or are constantly present. Additional treatment includes antidepressant medication, which is particularly effective in people who are suffering with symptoms of panic disorder.

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