What is anxiety? Symptoms, causes and prevention

Anxiety is a response to stress that is perfectly normal, but can become out of control in certain cases and cause serious problems if it isn’t managed. This guide will explore anxiety, explain the difference between normal and excessive anxiety levels, and what the symptoms and treatments are.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response that occurs when your body experiences stress. It manifests in the form of apprehension, worry, nervousness and / or fear about the future, either in general or about specific events. As well as emotional reactions, anxiety can cause physical symptoms and may increase blood pressure.

Anxiety is normal to a certain degree. However, constant and / or disproportionate levels of anxiety can interfere with your life and become a mental health disorder. Understanding the difference between normal and excessive anxiety is important as anxiety disorders require medical attention in order to avoid more serious symptoms such as panic attacks.

There are several types of anxiety disorders including social anxiety, separation anxiety, illness anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and obsessive-compulsive disorders. These all emanate from negative thoughts linked to a particular reason or fear. On the other hand, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to generalised anxiety that isn’t linked to a particular reason.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

While symptoms can vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder experienced, the symptoms of general anxiety disorders (GAD) typically include:

  • Restlessness
  • Constant worrying
  • Irritability
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Feelings of being ‘on edge’ or ‘out of control’

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks can happen very quickly and without warning. They are very intense, can happen without warning and are an exaggerated type of reaction one gets from fear. The symptoms include:

  • Feeling dizzy / faint
  • Dry mouth
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Hot flushes
  • Pins and needles
  • A feeling of dread or that you are about to die
  • A feeling that you are disconnected from your body or your surroundings

What are the causes of anxiety?

Determining the exact cause of anxiety is a complicated matter. The reasons can be highly varied depending on the person and their own brain chemistry, as well and environmental, circumstantial and environmental factors. Research has shown that anxiety may be caused by the areas of the brain that control fear.

It is most likely that a combination of factors lead to anxiety disorders. Potential elements contributing to anxiety may include:

  • Environmental causes: Work, relationship, family, and / or money problems
  • Illness: Stresses of severe diseases and effects of treatment
  • Substance abuse: Drug or alcohol misuse or withdrawal can worsen anxiety
  • Genetics: Anxiety is more likely if other family members also have anxiety disorders
  • Traumatic events: A stressful or traumatic life event such as bereavement
  • Brain chemistry: An imbalance of chemicals transmitters in the brain.

How to prevent and treat anxiety


You can reduce your risk of anxiety disorders naturally by taking the following steps:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Reduce your caffeine consumption
  • Learn meditation
  • Practice positive thinking
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Practice breathing techniques
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Avoid drugs

If your symptoms are out of control and you are experiencing an anxiety disorder that required medical attention, your GP may offer you a variety of treatments including:

  • Counselling will allow you to talk about what is causing your anxiety in a safe place, and your practitioner will be able to help you learn new coping techniques.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will help you learn to adopt a different viewpoint on stressful situations. You will learn to take a more positive, detached approach to certain situations in order to be able to deal with them in a rational, healthy manner and reduce the feelings of anxiety linked to them.
  • Medication such as anti-depressants, benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers may be prescribed. Benzodiazepines are addictive and should only be prescribed in low doses for a very short time.

Anxiety at certain times is a normal part of life but speak to your GP if you have symptoms which are causing you distress, interfering with your life or are prolonged.

How much anxiety is too much anxiety?

Feelings of anxiety are perfectly normal, particularly when facing worrying or potentially harmful triggers. The rush of adrenaline caused by such triggers creates a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, which is a natural instinct that helps us deal with what we see as potential threats. Symptoms associated with anxiety can include a raised heartbeat, sweating, and a high level of alertness. These are all perfectly normal. However, anxiety becomes a disorder when a person experiences recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns, and / or experiences physical symptoms. When a person reaches this stage, it becomes a medical condition as too much anxiety can interfere with daily function and therefore needs to be addressed.

How can a health check assess anxiety?

At a clinic

A health check assesses elements of your wellbeing including blood pressure and heart rhythm. These are included in all of our Health Assessments which consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with a Health Assessment Specialist. You can easily book one of these online and are available at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics nationwide. You will receive a wide array of key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.