Frequently Asked Questions

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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress or danger and is often called the ‘flight or fight’ response. This process involves adrenalin being quickly pumped through the body enabling it to cope with whatever catastrophe may come its way. The problems arise when this response is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation, or indeed is generated when there is no danger present.

The physical symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Dry mouth
  • Butterflies in stomach
  • Nausea
  • Urge to pass urine/empty bowels
  • Tremor
  • Sweating
  • Pins and needles

The psychological symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Inner tension
  • Agitation
  • Fear of losing control
  • Dread that something catastrophic is going to happen (such as blackout, seizure, heart attack or death)
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of detachment

Are anxiety disorders common?

Anxiety disorders are very common. In a survey covering Great Britain, 1 in 6 adults had experienced some form of ‘neurotic health problem’ in the previous week (1) The most common neurotic disorders were anxiety and depressive disorders. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life (2). An estimated 13% of the adult population will develop a specific form of anxiety known as a phobia at some point in their life (3). Large scale studies have suggested that around 2.5% of people are likely to experience OCD at some point in their life (4 & 5)

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study compared depression with angina, asthma, diabetes and concluded that the impact of depression on a person’s functioning was 50% more serious than the impact of any of the four physical conditions (6). At present 40% of disability worldwide is due to depression and anxiety (7). The most recent Psychiatric Morbidity Survey indicates that there are some 6 million people in the UK (approximately 3 million with depression as their primary problem and 3 million with an anxiety disorder) (8). 25% of those with a common mental health problem are currently receiving treatment for it. This falls to just 15% of people with mixed anxiety and depression – the most common anxiety-related diagnosis. (9) 1.7% more of the population of England (15% compared to 13.3%) were experiencing an anxiety-related common mental health disorder in 2007, compared to 1993. This is a percentage rise of 12.8% over 14 years. 800,000 more UK adults would have qualified for the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder in 2007 than in 1993.(9)

Anxiety UK Membership survey 2009/10

A survey was undertaken in the period between 30 Sept 2009 and 1st Dec 2009 to find out which were the most commonly presented anxiety disorders/anxiety related conditions within the membership of the Anxiety UK at that time. The results were as follows:


What causes an anxiety disorder?

There are many factors that can trigger an anxiety disorder. They include:

  • Stress
  • Physical factors (e.g. thyroid problems)
  • Childhood environment
  • Genetic predispositions
  • Biochemical imbalances (changes in the levels of chemical messengers in the brain)

Knowing the origins of an anxiety disorder doesn’t help in dealing with the day to day problems that arise as a result of the disorder but it can be reassuring for sufferers to know that there are factors out of their control that may have contributed to their present predicament.

How can I tell if I have an anxiety disorder?

Always consult your GP to obtain a diagnosis if you suspect that you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder. Self diagnosis is not an efficient way of dealing with anxiety, as misdiagnosis could lead to the wrong treatment being administered, which could set the sufferer back even further.

Is anxiety treatable?

Anxiety is a normal emotion and we would not look to ‘cure’ it. There are many occasions where anxiety is helpful and useful. Lots of factors can help you to control your feelings of anxiety, a combination of therapy, medication and self help strategies can help anybody affected by anxiety overcome their disorder and reach a point where they control their anxiety rather than the anxiety controlling them and affecting their quality of life.

Many people who contact Anxiety UK are hoping to be told of a revolutionary medication or quick fix therapy technique that will rid them of their anxiety overnight. No such treatment exists, and it is often this realisation, that the answer of recovery lies within oneself, that starts people off on that road to recovery.

Is anxiety life threatening?

The physical symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack, such as rapid breathing, chest pains and pins and needles are very similar to those of a heart attack, therefore it is not unusual for people experiencing such an attack to convince themselves that they are about to die. This is not the case. Nobody has died of a panic attack. It is simply the body reacting to increased adrenalin caused by panic. Anxiety is not life threatening. It is unpleasant, but not harmful.

Is it possible to suffer from more than one anxiety disorder at once?

It is quite common to suffer from more than one anxiety disorder at once. This is known as co-morbidity. In a recent Anxiety UK membership survey, 70% of respondents identified themselves as suffering with the symptoms of 3 or more anxiety conditions. Labels for disorders can be helpful when trying to seek out information, but most people can have elements of many different conditions.

Many agoraphobics, for example, may find that their problems started with panic attacks and panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers may also have generalised anxiety disorder.

What links all the disorders is an increased level of anxiety which the brain channels into an irrational fear or pattern of thought.

What is the difference between panic and anxiety?

Panic is a sudden intense response to normal thoughts or sensations. This is often accompanied with a feeling of impending doom, and physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, palpitations, pins and needles.

Anxiety is more of a psychological condition, prolonged by thought processes and rituals which cause the person affected to avoid certain situations which, they believe, will exacerbate their anxiety, and this avoidance behaviour then affects their quality of their life.

Are anti-depressants effective in treating anxiety?

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are a newer type of antidepressant and they work by interfering with the reabsorption of serotonin (a chemical produced in the brain that controls mood and emotion).

As with any medication, SSRIs do help reduce anxiety levels, and can be an important part in the recovery from an anxiety disorder. According to the latest NICE guidance for anxiety, there is no significant difference in recovery rates for individuals using medication or psychological therapy. For this reason all patients should be offered a choice about the type of treatment they receive.  Many individuals feed back that self help techniques along with psychological therapies keep them feeling well for longer.

Although SSRIs have fewer side effects than the older antidepressants such as the tricyclics, some people do experience some side effects such as headaches, sleep problems, nausea, constipation and diarrhoea.

As with any antidepressant it is very important to come off the medication carefully with supervision from a GP or mental health specialist. Problems can arise when medication is stopped abruptly rather than gradually reduced, which can sometimes lead to a rebound reaction and return of the anxiety that caused the need for medication in the first place.

Anxiety UK has a specialist helpline run by a team of psychiatric pharmacists that is available to members. If you have any concerns about your medication you can obtain free and impartial advice from them. They can also provide you with a report on your medication. In order to access this service you need to be a member of Anxiety UK. You can become a member of Anxiety UK by clicking here.

What is the possibility of having a relapse?

Some people who recover from an anxiety disorder will never experience problems of this nature in the future.

However, there are many people who have recovered from an anxiety disorder who, particularly at vulnerable times in their lives, such as a relationship break up, redundancy or bereavement, may experience a recurrence of their anxiety. This is very common, and can be overcome by recognising the early symptoms and putting into place the self help tools and behavioural techniques that were so effective previously.

You might like to download our relapse prevention pack to help reduce your chance of relapse. You can download it by clicking here. Another thing is to remember not to give yourself a hard time if things do get worse. Anxiety often ebbs and flows and recovery is not always linear. If you do have a bad day, see it as that rather than thinking that you are back to square one. Everyone has blips from time to time – it is part of life. The hard part is getting up the next morning and trying again, but this is the only way to recover from your anxiety.

  • (1)Office for National Statistics. ‘Surveys of Psychiatric Morbidity in Great Britain. Report 1 – THe prevalence of psychiatric morbidity among adults living in private households.’ The Stationery Office. 1995
  • (2)Ehlers, A. ‘Anxiety disorders: Challenging negative thinking.’ Quoted in the Wellcome Trust Reveiws, 1997.
  • (3)Wittchen, H.U (1998) in Emmelkamp, P.M.G Bouman, TK & Scholing, A ‘Anxiety Disorders: A practitioner’s Guide.’ Wiley, 1992
  • (4)Robins, L., Helzer, J., Weissman, M., Ovashel, H., Gruenberg, E., Burke, J., & Reiger, D. ‘Lifetime prevalence of specific psychiatric disorders in three sites.’ Archives of General Psychiatry (1984) 41:949-58.
  • (5)Wittchen, H.U. (1988) ‘Natural course and spontaneous remissions of untreated anxiety disorders, in Hand, I & Wittchen, H.U. Panic and Phobias Vol 2. New York, Springer.
  • (6)Mousavi et al. (2007). Depression, chronic diseases, and decrements in health: results from the World Health Surveys, The Lancet, 370:851-858.
  • (7)WHO (2002), The Global Burden of Disease.
  • (8)Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (2000).
  • (9)Mental Health Foundation (2009). In the face of fear.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychologists have a degree in Psychology and then a three year post graduate doctoral qualification. A Psychiatrist is medically trained as a doctor and then completes a one year Psychological medicine qualification