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Anxiety is a natural reaction to threatening situations. It is a type of survival mechanism. Anxiety may feel less or more severe, from diffuse uneasiness to strong physical symptoms or feelings of panic where it may feel as though you are going to faint. Anxiety always passes, but it may reappear.

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety may feel different to different people, and its level of severity may vary. Mild anxiety may feel like uneasiness, restlessness, or a feeling of unreality, like being in a “bubble”. Strong anxiety may be felt more physically. In that case you may feel as though you are having difficulty breathing, feel pressure on your chest or have heart palpitations. If the anxiety comes on quickly and you are unprepared, this is called panic disorder, and what happens when the anxiety strikes is called a panic attack.

When the anxiety starts, it’s common to think “this will never end” or “I’m going crazy”. When you feel this way – remember that none of this is true! Anxiety always passes after a while, and it’s not dangerous even if you are sure it is right at the moment.

Why do I become anxious?

Anxiety may be triggered by things such as a thought or feeling that frightens you or makes you feel threatened, powerless, worthless or like a failure. Sometimes anxiety may be associated with high demands or feelings of guilt or shame. It’s common to feel strange and odd, and that there’s “something wrong” with you.

Anxiety can also be triggered if you are betrayed or abandoned. Running the risk of losing something that is important to you such as security, status or love may also cause you to become anxious.

What is happening in my brain when I become anxious?

Anxiety is a set of reactions in the central nervous system that you cannot control. The reaction is a sort of alarm system that is set off when the brain and nervous system react to a threat or danger. The danger doesn’t always need to be real. When the brain sends out signals that your life is in danger the body reacts, and this is what you feel as anxiety.

The sensitivity of one’s alarm system may vary from person to person, and during different periods of one’s life. It’s not uncommon to have more anxiety in your teens and twenties but for it to get better with age. Sensitivity to anxiety may also be affected if you experience difficult events.

What sort of treatment can I receive?

All treatment against anxiety is based on learning to manage it. The method is called exposure, and it means gradually learning to tolerate feeling anxious while in a secure situation. Once you are able to manage it in the moment, you will notice that it disappears on its own after a while. Practicing exposure can help the brain to reset its sensitivity to its alarm system, and you can become less vulnerable to anxiety.

How common is anxiety?

Everyone is anxious sometime in their life, some people more often than others. Even if anxiety is extremely common, few people discuss it openly. Therefore many people may associate anxiety with feelings such as guilt and shame. Since anxiety isn’t usually visible, many people believe they are alone in being anxious, which makes it more difficult to discuss than it actually should be.

There are many people who hide their anxiety or pretend it does not exist. The more you try to avoid it, the more difficult it may become to manage it.

How can I manage anxiety, and what can I do on my own?

It’s natural to want to escape when the anxiety starts. It’s human to want to avoid discomfort. But anxiety does not dissipate when you avoid it — in fact, it’s just the opposite. One good way to manage anxiety is to accept it, tolerate it and not try to escape from it. If you can manage that, the anxiety usually passes more quickly, and it becomes easier to manage in the long term.

It helps to talk to someone about how you are feeling. Talking is often a first step to beginning to feel better. You can also learn more about anxiety by reading about it and how it can be treated.

Stress and anxiety are often connected. If you try to eat, sleep and do things you enjoy, you will have more resistance to both stress and anxiety. It’s also important to dare to say no and to set limits to what you can handle.

What is anxiety disorder?

When anxiety affects your life every day this may be an anxiety disorder, for which treatment is available. Examples of anxiety disorders are panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety and specific phobias.

When do I need to seek help?

If you have so much anxiety every day that it affects your life – don’t hesitate to seek help. Don’t view it as a failure: daring to ask for help often requires courage, and the earlier you seek help the better. If you are still daunted by seeking care on your own, ask someone you trust to support you in this. If you don’t have anyone you trust who you believe can support you, you can call or chat online with a support line anonymously. Here is a list of organisations you can contact.