Are you feeling anxious? You’re not alone. An estimated 1 in 6 adults in the UK have experienced symptoms of a common mental disorder like depression or anxiety in the past week, with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) being the most common.1
What is anxiety?
The NHS defines anxiety as ‘a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.’2 However, this doesn’t cover the reality of the physical and emotional symptoms which can be disruptive and distressing.
So, anxiety is a response to fear. Historically, this would be fear from an immediate threat or danger. Nowadays, it’s more likely to be a looking deadline than an attack by wild animals, but the physiological response is the same.
When we’re anxious, our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline, known as the ‘stress hormones’.3 This isn’t always a bad thing. A little anxiety and stress can keep us alert, focused, motivated and encourage us to make decisions which keep us safe.
However, too much anxiety causes a range of unpleasant symptoms, both physical and psychological. In the case of generalised anxiety disorder, these feelings can get in the way of activities and your enjoyment of daily life.
The physical symptoms of anxiety can include:
- rapid heartbeat
- sweaty hands or feet
- fluttery feeling in chest (caused by heart palpitations)
- dry mouth
- rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
The psychological symptoms of anxiety can include:4
- a sense of dread
- feeling constantly “on edge”
- difficulty concentrating
- withdrawing from family, friends or social situations
Who gets anxiety?
There is no typical anxiety sufferer. Absolutely anyone could potentially experience anxiety.
While it’s true that anxiety can have a detrimental effect on your quality of life – it doesn’t mean you can’t also be a successful, outgoing and happy person at the same time.
Although times are changing and open discussion of mental health challenges are becoming more common, having anxiety isn’t always something people choose to broadcast. Therefore, some of the most outwardly confident people you know could also be dealing with anxiety behind closed doors.
What causes anxiety?
While there are some risk factors and triggers for anxiety, such as a relationship breakdown, bereavement or job interview, sometimes there is no obvious cause.
In fact, nobody is completely clear on the causes of anxiety. Experts think there are several factors at play.
We look at the main known contributors to anxiety.
#1 Your genetics
Do any members of your close biological family, such as your parents, experience anxiety? If they do, there’s a greater chance you’ll also experience it at some point.
The genetics of anxiety is an emerging area of study. However, advances are being made and it’s an area of great interest to the medical community due to the high prevalence of anxiety in the world today.
Anxiety is known to be somewhat hereditary, with around 31% of offspring sharing anxiety as a characteristic with their parents according to one study analysis.5
The results of a large USA study published in January 2020 found that people who shared a particular genetic marker often shared anxiety as a common trait.6
#2 Your diet
A poor diet high in sugar is known to exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Sugar intake from sweet food and drinks has been strongly linked with common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.7 8
Though it’s used as a way to relax and unwind, drinking alcohol is a sure-fire way to ramp up anxiety. Despite being a short-term sedative, as your body works to get rid of the alcohol you can experience withdrawal symptoms including feelings of anxiety, depression and low mood which can last for several days.9
If you’re experiencing anxiety, you might want to consider your caffeine intake, too. While a morning or afternoon coffee can feel comforting, remember caffeine is a stimulant and will keep your nervous system on high alert.10 11
Ingesting too much caffeine in the form of energy drinks, coffee or even chocolate could cause increased heartbeat, jitters, poor sleeping pattern and a temporary rise in blood pressure – all of which are linked to anxiety.12
#3 Your sleep pattern
Disrupted sleep contributes to low mood and anxiety.13 In fact, the link is so strong that the University of Texas found that people with insomnia were up to 17 times more likely to experience anxiety disorders than those who slept normally.14
#4 Your lifestyle
The amount that lifestyle factors influence our mental wellbeing shouldn’t be underestimated.
A stressful commute, turbulent relationship or even noisy neighbours can raise your daily stress levels. Even unexpected things such as the amount of time spent on social media15 can stress us out to the point that we’re more likely to experience anxiety even after we’ve logged off.
Living a seemingly positive high-stress lifestyle can lead to or worsen anxiety, too. Having a high-powered job, planning events, juggling career and children are all stress-inducing things which are usually associated with a happy and successful life.
This may be true, but living a life filled with constant stress can lead to generalised anxiety over time.
#5 Your life experience
Were you always moving schools as a child and having to start friendships from scratch? Was your mother terrified you would run into the road and was hyper-anxious around traffic? Even things such a big, scary dog next door growing up can instill fears and anxieties into the developing psyche.16
There are many researchers who believe that nurture plays a big role in whether people will grow up to be anxious. For example, separation anxiety and social phobias frequently have their roots in childhood.17
If you felt secure and had consistency throughout your childhood, you’re less likely to experience anxiety disorders as an adult.
#6 Your gender, age, and overall health
It’s been reported that women are twice as likely to experience anxiety than men.18
Official government statistics indicate that in 2019, 65% of those referred to Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services in the UK were women.19
This could be because men may be less likely to go to their GP or other service about their anxiety. More research into this area is needed.
A 2016 study conducted by the University of Cambridge found that young people and people with chronic diseases were more likely to experience anxiety.20
What causes anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks, also called panic attacks, are short-lived episodes of extreme anxiety.
Unlike generalised anxiety, which can be present for days or weeks or more, an anxiety attack only lasts for a short time, between 5-20 minutes. During this time, you can experience:21
- a pounding or racing heartbeat
- feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
- sweating, trembling or shaking
- chest pain
- trouble breathing
Anxiety attacks are brought on by chronic stress, phobias, hyperventilating (breathing shallowly and rapidly), medication side effects or excessive caffeine intake.22
However, sometimes there is no clear explanation for what has brought on an anxiety attack. Reducing overall anxiety will reduce the risk of experiencing an anxiety attack.
What will cause or worsen anxiety
Some anxiety risk factors, such as your genetics and your gender, are out of your control. However, there are lifestyle factors which we can control.
Take a look at the following list of factors which increase your risk of anxiety, and consider the ones you can change:23
- a diet high in sugar
- drinking alcohol
- drinking lots of caffeine in the form of coffee or energy drinks
- taking on too much at work, or socially
- living with pressures such as debt or a turbulent relationship
- a poor sleep pattern, or lack of sleep
- spending lots of time on social media
Last updated: 31 July 2020
19 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number 6988 January 2020