What is anxiety?


Anxiety is an emotion that alerts us to a threat. It motivates to avoid danger and stay safe. Most of us experience anxiety at times. Some have a little of it, some have a lot. Anxiety is a problem when it prevents you from living the life you want. 


There are physical, cognitive (i.e. mental) and behavioural symptoms of anxiety.


1. Physical signs of anxiety include:

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • hyperventilation

  • Difficulty

  • Dry Mouth

  • Feeling like you're choking

  • Blushing

  • Stomach pains and diarrhoea

  • Feeling spaced out or like you are not yourself

  • Dizziness

  • Chest tightness

  • Racing heart

  • Hot or cold flushes

  • Reduced appetite

  • Sleeping problems

  • Muscle tension


2. Cognitive signs of anxiety include: 

  • Catastrophizing Catastrophizing involves thinking in worst case scenarios. We assume the worst will happen - even when it is unlikely. We underestimate our ability to cope with difficult things  - even when we have strengths and past successes.

  • Worry Worry involves dwelling on problems or things that may go wrong. This isn't always a bad thing. It can help us to plan for things. The problem with worry is that it goes on and on, exhausts us, and rarely leads to actionable solutions.


3. Behavioural signs of anxiety include:

  • Avoidance - Anxiety motivates us to avoid a threat. This is fine when we are actually in danger and need to escape. This is a problem when we aren’t in danger (but think we are) though. Avoidance as a way of coping with anxiety can also limit our life.

  • Reassurance seeking excessively - Asking for advice and reassurance is fine. Yet if we do it too often we never learn how to do things for ourselves.  This can leave us feeling inadequate and dependent on others.

  • Scanning for danger - It’s sensible to scan for danger in a dangerous situation. This helps us to detect and avoid a threat. It’s redundant in safe situations though. It can also distract us. It's pretty hard to enjoy a date when we spend all out time monitoring how we’re coming across, for example.


Types of Anxiety


There are different types of anxiety. They share the above symptoms, but each has different triggers.


  • In Social Anxiety a person fears judgement from others.

  • In Agoraphobia, a person avoids places that are hard to escape from (e.g. tunnels, bridges, closed spaces).

  • In PTSD, reminders of past trauma (e.g. places, people, smells, sounds) trigger anxiety.

  • In Panic Disorder, persons fear physical sensations (e.g. heart palpitations, lightheadedness).

  • Generalized anxiety involves worrying excessively about everyday things, such as money, health, relationships.

  • Phobias most relate to heights, spiders, injection, but there are many other triggers.


What causes anxiety?


  • Genetics - Some people are more prone to anxiety than others. This is partly due to their genetics. Anxiety can run in families.

  • Biology - anxiety can result from certain medications (e.g corticosteroids), medical conditions (e.g. hypothyroidism), and drugs (e.g. cocaine).

  • Environment - Parenting can affect anxiety. If a child is over-protected they may never learn to cope with adversity. Past trauma (e.g. physical, sexual or emotional abuse) can also play a role.

  • Catastrophizing - 'Worst case scenario' thinking causes anxiety.


How is anxiety treated?


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in treating anxiety. CBT teaches people the skills to manage anxiety. Treatment usually includes:


  • Relaxation skills - These skills help to take the edge off the anxiety. Progressive Muscle Relaxation and abdominal breathing are the two most commonly taught techniques.

  • Lifestyle changes - Exercise and getting enough sleep is important. Avoiding alcohol, drugs, and stimulants (e.g. caffeine) can also help with anxiety.

  • Thought challenging - Catastrophic thinking drives anxiety. Thought challenging helps with this. People are taught to ask "is this thought true?", "how likely is that?", "If the worst did happen, how could I cope?"

  • Attention training - Anxiety gives us tunnel vision. Training your attention can help this. With practice, you can break the habit of dwelling endlessly on problems. You'll also be more able to focus on what is important, interesting, and enjoyable in your life.

  • Problem-solving - CBT places emphasis on finding solutions. Using a structured approach can be helpful.

  • Exposure - Exposure therapy targets avoidant behaviours. People who do it are encouraged to face their fears to test whether they come true. Exposure also gives people a chance to see what they're capable of. This is a very liberating (and difficult) treatment. It helps people take control back from anxiety so they can lead the lives they want.


This video explains how anxiety operates and how it's treated using CBT:



About me

I am a Clinical Psychologist in North Sydney who treats anxiety using CBT. Please get in contact to learn more.


* Last updated: February 2018.

* The document is for information purposes only. Please refer to the disclaimer.