Anxiety: symptoms and causes

Anxiety: symptoms and causes

Do you have a nervous feeling? You're not by yourself. In the last week, an estimated one in every six adults in the UK has experienced symptoms of a common mental disorder such as depression or anxiety, with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) being the most common.

What exactly is anxiety?

Anxiety, according to the NHS, is "a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe."

This does not, however, address the reality of the physical and emotional symptoms, which can be disruptive and distressing.

As a result, anxiety is a reaction to fear. Historically, this would have been fear of an impending threat or danger.

Nowadays, a looking deadline is more likely than a wild animal attack, but the physiological response is the same.

When we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline, which are known as "stress hormones." This is not always a negative thing. A little anxiety and stress can keep us alert, focused, motivated, and encourage us to make safe decisions.

However, excessive anxiety causes a variety of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. These feelings can interfere with activities and your enjoyment of daily life if you have generalised anxiety disorder.

Anxiety can cause the following physical symptoms:

  • rapid heart rate
  • perspiring hands or feet
  • fluttering sensation in the chest (caused by heart palpitations)
  • a dry mouth
  • restlessness
  • quick breathing (hyperventilation)

Anxiety can cause the following psychological symptoms:

  • a sense of foreboding
  • constantly feeling "on edge"
  • inability to concentrate
  • irritability
  • avoiding family, friends, and social situations

Who experiences anxiety?

There is no such thing as a typical anxiety sufferer. Anyone has the potential to experience anxiety.

While anxiety can have a negative impact on your quality of life, it doesn't mean you can't be successful, outgoing, and happy at the same time.

Despite the fact that times are changing and open discussion of mental health issues is becoming more common, having anxiety isn't always something people choose to broadcast.

As a result, some of the most outwardly confident people you know may be suffering from anxiety behind closed doors.

What factors contribute to anxiety?

While there are some risk factors and triggers for anxiety, such as a breakup, bereavement, or a job interview, there are times when there is no obvious cause.

In fact, no one knows for certain what causes anxiety. Several factors, according to experts, are at work.

We examine the most well-known causes of anxiety.

1. Your ancestors

Do any of your close biological family members, such as your parents, suffer from anxiety? If they do, there's a good chance you will as well at some point.

Anxiety genetics is a new area of research. However, progress is being made, and the medical community is very interested in this area due to the high prevalence of anxiety in the world today.

According to one study analysis, anxiety is somewhat hereditary, with approximately 31 percent of offspring sharing anxiety as a characteristic with their parents.

A large US study published in January 2020 discovered that people who shared a specific genetic marker frequently shared anxiety as a common trait.

2. Your eating habits

Anxiety symptoms are known to be exacerbated by a poor diet high in sugar. Sugar consumption from sweet foods and beverages has been linked to common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Though it is commonly used to relax and unwind, alcohol is a sure-fire way to increase anxiety.

Despite being a short-term sedative, withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and low mood can last for several days as your body works to rid itself of the alcohol.

If you're anxious, you should think about your caffeine intake as well. While a cup of coffee in the morning or afternoon may feel soothing, keep in mind that caffeine is a stimulant that will keep your nervous system on high alert.

Caffeine consumption in the form of energy drinks, coffee, or even chocolate may result in increased heartbeat, jitters, poor sleeping patterns, and a temporary rise in blood pressure – all of which are associated with anxiety.

3. Your sleeping habits

Sleep deprivation contributes to depression and anxiety. In fact, the link is so strong that researchers at the University of Texas discovered that people who suffered from insomnia were up to 17 times more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than those who slept normally.


4. Your daily life

The impact of lifestyle factors on our mental health should not be underestimated.

A stressful commute, a tumultuous relationship, or even noisy neighbours can all add to your daily stress. Even unanticipated factors, such as the amount of time we spend on social media, can stress us out to the point where we're more likely to experience anxiety even after we log off.

A seemingly positive high-stress lifestyle can also cause or worsen anxiety. Having a high-powered job, planning events, juggling a career and children are all stressful activities that are often associated with a happy and successful life.

This may be true but living a stressful life can lead to generalised anxiety over time.

5. Your upbringing

As a child, did you have to start new friendships every time you moved schools? Was your mother afraid you'd run into the road and was nervous around traffic? Growing up with a big, scary dog next door can instil fears and anxieties in the developing psyche.

Many researchers believe that nurture plays a significant role in whether people grow up to be anxious. Separation anxiety and social phobias, for example, frequently have their origins in childhood.

If you felt secure and consistent as a child, you are less likely to develop anxiety disorders as an adult.

6. Gender, age, and general health

It has been reported that women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety.

According to official government statistics, 65 percent of those referred to Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services in the UK in 2019 were women.

This could be because men are less likely than women to seek help for their anxiety from their doctor or another service. More research is required in this area.

A University of Cambridge study published in 2016 discovered that young people and people with chronic diseases were more likely to experience anxiety.

What factors contribute to anxiety attacks?

Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks, are brief periods of extreme anxiety.

Unlike generalised anxiety, which can last for days, weeks, or even months, an anxiety attack lasts only 5-20 minutes.

During this time, you may encounter:

  • a racing or pounding heartbeat
  • feeling dizzy, faint, or light-headed
  • perspiration, trembling, or shaking
  • nausea
  • Chest discomfort
  • difficulty breathing

Chronic stress, phobias, hyperventilating (breathing shallowly and rapidly), medication side effects, or excessive caffeine consumption can all trigger anxiety attacks.

However, there are times when there is no clear cause for an anxiety attack. Reducing overall anxiety lowers the likelihood of having an anxiety attack.

What causes or worsens anxiety?

Some anxiety risk factors are beyond your control, such as your genetics and gender. However, there are some lifestyle factors that we can influence.

Examine the following list of factors that increase your risk of anxiety and think about which ones you can change:

  • a high-sugar diet
  • consuming alcoholic beverages
  • consuming large amounts of caffeine in the form of coffee or energy drinks
  • taking on too much at work or in social situations
  • dealing with stressors such as debt or a tumultuous relationship
  • a disturbed sleep pattern or a lack of sleep
  • spending a significant amount of time on social media

Anxiety disorders and their symptoms

Anxiety comes in many forms, and it can be helpful to identify which type of anxiety you or a loved one is experiencing. The following is a list of the most common types of anxiety.

Anxiety disorder in general (GAD)

GAD is the most common type of anxiety disorder – and, as the name implies, it usually does not have a specific trigger. It is anxiety on a broader scale. The main symptom of GAD is excessive overthinking and worrying about events and daily activities. It may make you feel out of control and cause you to feel anxious, 'on edge,' and constantly aware of your surroundings.

This type of anxiety can have a negative impact on your daily life. GAD can interfere with your ability to leave the house, travel to places, and work. Symptoms include easily becoming tired, having difficulty sleeping and concentrating, as well as sweating more than usual and experiencing muscle tension. GAD is frequently accompanied by depression or other anxiety disorders.

GAD can be difficult to diagnose because it lacks some of the distinguishing symptoms of other common anxiety disorders. If you have experienced anxiety for any reason on most days for the past six months and it has had a negative impact on your life, your doctor will most likely diagnose you with GAD.

If you suspect you have GAD, please consult your doctor. However, if you believe that your anxiety does not require medical treatment and that it is not a full-blown disorder, here are some tips on how to deal with anxiety.

Anxiety disorder

Have you ever experienced a panic attack? Panic attacks occur on a regular basis in people with panic disorder, with no apparent cause.

What exactly is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a type of fear response in which your body's normal response to stress, danger, or excitement is exaggerated.

These frequent panic attacks can appear out of nowhere and can be frightening and intense, making you fearful of having more panic attacks. It is not to be confused with triggered panic attacks, for example, if you dislike large crowds and one forms around you for some reason, and you have a panic attack – this does not necessarily indicate that you have a panic disorder.

The following are some common panic disorder symptoms:

  • A strong and overwhelming feeling of fear or dread
  • Chest pain or the sensation that your heart is beating abnormally
  • Suspicious of having a heart attack or dying
  • Sweating and hot flushes, or shivering and chills
  • Dry mouth or choking sensation
  • Feeling dizzy, nauseated, or faint
  • Pins and needles, numbness, or tingling in your fingers
  • Having to use the restroom more frequently
  • Ringing in the ears
  • A churning sensation in your stomach

If you are experiencing this and need assistance, please see your doctor.

Anxiety about social situations

Social anxiety (SA), also known as social phobia, is an intense fear of social / performance situations. It is normal for everyone to have passing concerns about social situations, but if you are afraid of social situations all of the time, you may have social anxiety. Some situations, such as the following, can cause social anxiety before, during, and after the event:

  • Getting to know new people or strangers
  • Speaking in front of groups or in public
  • Dating
  • Public drinking and eating

One of the most common concerns for people with SA is that they will embarrass themselves in public. This anxiety can result in physical symptoms such as:

  • Sweating
  • A trembling voice


  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Blushing skin

You may also be overly concerned with what other people think of you and be aware that they can see how embarrassed you are. As a result, you may avoid certain situations and isolate yourself. You may recognise that your fears are excessive, but you still struggle to control your anxiety.

If you are experiencing this and need assistance, please see your doctor.


A phobia can be about anything, such as a specific location, object, situation, animal, or emotion. Phobias are more than just fears; they are much more powerful. Phobias form when people experience increased feelings of danger about an object or situation, to the point where they may alter their daily routine to avoid the thing they are afraid of. Some common phobias are:

  • Phobias related to the environment, such as germs and heights
  • Fear of animals such as snakes, spiders, or rodents
  • Phobias related to the body, such as being sick or seeing blood
  • Sexual phobias – similar to performance anxiety
  • Situational phobias, such as fear of going to the dentist


People suffering from agoraphobia are afraid of being in situations where they may be unable or difficult to escape, or where they may be unable to seek help if something goes wrong. Here are some examples:

  • Departure from home
  • Taking public transportation
  • Being in congested areas
  • Being present in public places

Worrying about these everyday activities can cause you to feel distressed, anxious, and panicked, causing you to avoid certain situations entirely.

Going to see your doctor can be difficult if you have agoraphobia. You can, however, make a phone appointment with them and they will assist you in getting treatment.

If you are experiencing this and need assistance, please see your doctor.

Obsessive-compulsive syndrome (OCD)

OCD is made up of two parts: obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are uninvited images or thoughts that you can't get out of your head and are mostly out of your control. These difficult-to-ignore thoughts can be upsetting and cause anxiety and distress.

Compulsions are behaviours or thoughts that you engage in to alleviate anxiety. These behaviours can be subtle, such as repeating a phrase in your head to calm yourself down, or overt, such as making sure all the windows are closed. It's common to believe that if you don't do these things, something bad will happen, even if you recognise that it's illogical but find it difficult to stop.

OCD comes in many forms, including:

  • Checking – the constant desire to inspect yourself or your surroundings for damage, such as leaks, fires, or harm.
  • Contamination – the need to wash and clean frequently because something or someone has been 'contaminated.
  • Hoarding – the inability to discard worn-out or useless items
  • Intrusive thoughts – having uncontrollable upsetting, repetitive, and frequently disturbing thoughts pop into your head.

If you are concerned that you may have OCD, please consult with your doctor so that you can discuss potential treatments.


Skin picking, also known as dermatillomania, is an impulse control disorder. Even when your skin is healthy, you find it difficult to stop picking at it. This can result in bleeding, bruising, and, in some cases, permanent scarring. People generally pick at their facial skin, but some pick at other parts of their bodies as well and find it difficult to stop.

Picking your skin has no known cause, but it is thought to relieve tension and stress or be a form of addiction. It is quite common to pick at your skin while also suffering from OCD.

Your primary care physician may make an appointment for you to see a specialist in mental health for a diagnosis.

Hair yanking

Hair pulling, also known as trichotillomania, is another impulse control disorder. If you have no underlying skin conditions that cause you to pull your hair out, but you still have the urge, you may be suffering from this disorder. You will have a strong desire to pull hair from your eyelashes, arms, brows, legs, or pubic area and will struggle to stop.

When you pull your hair out, you may be releasing tension, enjoying pleasure, or are unaware that you are doing so. Because it is difficult to stop, having this disorder for an extended period of time can result in hair loss, as well as significant distress, guilt, and embarrassment.

If you are experiencing this and need assistance, please see your doctor.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (PTSD)

If you have been feeling anxious and have previously experienced a traumatic situation, such as being in a fire, seeing people die, or being sexually assaulted, you may have PTSD. Even if you were not physically harmed, this anxiety can last for months or years. Please see your doctor, who can recommend treatment for this condition.

Dysmorphic disorder of the body (BDD)

If you are unhappy with your appearance and can't stop thinking about it, you may have body dysmorphic disorder. This can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

  • Obsessively worrying about a perceived flaw in your physical appearance, even though most people can't see it or don't think it's nearly as bad as you do.
  • Developing compulsive routines and behaviours, such as excessive mirror use or picking at your skin or hair as a coping mechanism

Many people with this disorder will not seek help because they are afraid of being labelled as vain. It is not for show – please see your doctor to find out how you can treat this disorder.