We all experience feelings of anxiety from time to time. These are an understandable reaction to life events and stressors that everybody will go through at some point. However, 60% of UK adults have recently experienced anxiety that interfered with their daily lives. This is obviously more serious, so let’s find out what causes anxiety and how we can manage it.

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Next, discover what is stress and how to reduce it, what is burnout and 10 tips to manage stress eating. We also take a look at the role talk therapy plays in gut health.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion which tells us that we feel threatened in some way. This could be from something that has already happened, is happening now or may happen in the future. Anxiety tries to keep us safe by protecting or motivating us to do something. For example, an anxious thought of ‘Did I remember to lock the car?’ may motivate you to check the car is indeed locked. Anxiety can range from feeling a little uneasy in the moment, to intense fear which persists long after the event has passed.

If anxiety has become very intense and interferes greatly with life over an extended period, you may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are usually defined by the area they show up – such as social anxiety (in social settings), generalised anxiety (about day-to-day/future worry), health anxiety (about the health of oneself and others). There are other types of anxiety disorder categories too, including panic disorder (involving episodic panic attacks), phobias (anxiety around a specific stimulus) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (anxious thoughts leading to specific behaviours to try to neutralise these temporarily).

A woman leaning against a wall holding her head

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

There are a few signs our bodies give us when we're anxious to look out for. Your heart may beat faster, your breathing becomes shallower and quicker, you may sweat, feel thirsty, and need to go to the toilet. If you're feeling very anxious, you may start to shake, hyperventilate and maybe even cry. Anxiety may also be accompanied by other difficult emotions too, such as feeling overwhelmed, anger, embarrassment or shame. We can fall into unhelpful patterns of thinking where we catastrophise and spiral for hours about future scenarios if left un-checked.

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What causes anxiety?

Whilst anxiety is a normal response to usual stress and trauma, there are also factors which can contribute to anxiety feeling unmanageable. No specific biomarkers on our genes have been identified, but our own personal histories, thinking styles and coping strategies all contribute. For example, we may grow up with anxious parents who suppress their feelings so we don’t learn how to deal with anxiety. They may display intense reactions to perceived ‘threats’ which we then assume to be accurate.

Our thinking styles can also cause us to respond anxiously to events. Anxiety can be exacerbated both by what we pay attention to (attentional biases) and how we interpret our experience (interpretation biases). These include:

  • perceiving more threats in the environment
  • jumping to a negative conclusion which isn’t evidence-based (or ‘fortune telling’)
  • emotional reasoning where emotions are taken as evidence of ‘truth’
  • magnification where fears are exaggerated and made larger than they really are
  • struggling to reappraise situations to see that a potential ‘threat’ is not so threatening after all.

How to deal with anxiety

With 30% of anxious adults feeling that they are not coping well with feelings of anxiety, how can we cope better with anxiety?

Self-help treatments for anxiety

  • Try tackling small tasks you usually avoid (e.g. opening bills) head on, as while in the short-term this avoids anxiety, it only increases it in the long-term.
  • Try not to suppress emotions and instead be curious about why they are showing up now and what they may be telling you.
  • Practise noticing when you are getting ‘hooked’ by anxious thoughts. Take a breath and try to take a step back and observe them, as though each thought were a leaf flowing down a stream away from you.
  • Reflect on particularly difficult thoughts by re-appraising them and looking at the evidence for and against them being true. Journalling or noting these in a diary can really help here to see patterns.
  • Mindfulness, meditation, learning breathing techniques and muscle relaxation or more spiritual approaches such as Yoga Nidra can help your body to reduce general levels of anxiety.
A man stretching on a yoga mat

Lifestyle changes for anxiety

  • Research consistency shows that high levels of caffeine and alcohol whilst often used as coping strategies for anxiety can actually cause symptoms of anxiety and other mood difficulties, so try to minimise your intake of these particularly in the evenings. Understand how much caffeine is too much.
  • Poor quality sleep can cause problems if you already feel anxious. Try to prioritise getting enough sleep and develop a relaxing wind-down routine before bedtime. Discover our guide on how to sleep better.
  • Exercise can be a great way to release excess adrenaline and cortisol, which show up when you’re anxious. Read more about the benefits of exercise on mental health.
  • Biofeedback machines can help track and reduce your heart rate and breathing rates, which can then reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Seek help for anxiety

  • If your anxiety levels are feeling unmanageable you can refer yourself to your local NHS wellbeing service online for some support. You find this via Google or ask your GP to provide details for your local service.
  • If the symptoms of anxiety are very intense you may want to consider some short-term medication, via your GP or a Psychiatrist, so that you can engage with Psychological Therapy.
  • Therapy can help you to help address the underlying reasons for anxiety and develop ways of managing this. The best treatments for anxiety are Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

How can I cope with anxiety?

Anxiety shows up for all of us for understandable reasons, such as problems we need to deal with or worries about the future. However, if you are experiencing intense anxious feelings every day for prolonged periods of time, it can be a sign of anxiety becoming unmanageable. It is important to develop an understanding of what triggers anxiety for you and what coping strategies you use. It can be helpful to access self-help tools or additional support to do this effectively.

Like this? Read more:

How to overcome social anxiety
How to lower cortisol levels
How to manage back to school anxiety


Dr Laura Keyes is a Clinical Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is an Accredited EMDR Therapist. She runs a private practice open to children and adults, offering psychological therapy for common mental health difficulties and assessments for neurodivergence (Autism & ADHD) in Bedfordshire & the surrounding counties: drlaurakeyes.com

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