What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. 

While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where a person feels under pressure, it usually passes once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed. Anxiety is when these anxious feelings don’t subside. Anxiety is when they are ongoing and exist without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard for a person to cope with daily life. We all feel anxious from time to time, but for a person experiencing anxiety, these feelings cannot be easily controlled.

Anxiety Disorders

While anxiety is considered a natural reaction to a stressful situation, for some individuals anxious thoughts, feelings, or physical symptoms can become severe, and cause significant distress or interfere with their ability to cope with normal daily demands. If this occurs frequently or persists over a long period of time, the individual may at risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorders diagnosed in Australia and can take a number of different forms. These include:

Generalised anxiety disorder

This disorder involves persistent and excessive worry, often about daily situations like work, family or health. This worry can be difficult to control and can interfere with an individual’s day-to-day functioning, for example, reduced concentration, restlessness, irritability, fatigue, muscular tension, and difficulty sleeping.

Specific phobia

People with a specific phobia experience extreme anxiety and fear if exposed to a particular feared object or situation. Common phobias include fear of flying, spiders and other animals, heights or small spaces.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder occurs when a person has sudden surges of overwhelming fear and anxiety that come without warning. Common symptoms that may be experienced include the sudden onset of chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, and detachment from one’s thoughts and behaviours. These panic attacks often only last a few minutes, but repeated episodes may continue to occur.


Agoraphobia involves intense anxiety following exposure to, or anticipation of, a variety of situations such as public transportation, open spaces, crowds, or being outside of the home alone.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Individuals with OCD have recurring, persistent, and distressing thoughts, images or impulses, known as obsessions, or feel compelled to carry out certain repetitive behaviours, rituals, or mental acts, known as compulsions. These thoughts and acts can take over a person’s life and while people with OCD usually know that their obsessions and compulsions are an over-reaction, they are unable to stop them

Social anxiety disorder

In social anxiety disorder the person has severe anxiety about being criticised or negatively evaluated by others. This leads to the person avoiding social events and being afraid of doing something that may lead to embarrassment or humiliation.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD refers to a set of symptoms that can occur in individuals after exposure to a frightening and traumatic event. People with PTSD re-experience the traumatic event through thoughts or images (e.g., nightmares) and tend to avoid places, people, or activities which remind them of the event. They can also feel irritable, angry, or over-alert and can experience concentration problems and difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.

What causes Anxiety?

As with depression, it’s often a combination of factors that can lead to a person developing anxiety.

Family history of mental health problems

People who experience anxiety often have a history of mental health problems in their family. However, this doesn’t mean that a person will automatically develop anxiety if a parent or close relative has had a mental illness.

Ongoing stressful events

Stressful events can also trigger symptoms of anxiety. Common triggers include:

  • job stress or job change

  • change in living arrangements

  • pregnancy and giving birth

  • family and relationship problems

  • major emotional shock following a stressful or traumatic event

  • verbal, sexual, physical or emotional abuse or trauma

  • death or loss of a loved one.

Physical health problems

Continuing physical illness can also trigger anxiety or complicate the treatment of either the anxiety or the physical illness itself. Common conditions that can do this include:

  • hormonal problems (e.g. overactive thyroid)

  • diabetes

  • asthma

  • heart disease

If there is concern about any of these conditions, ask a doctor for medical tests to rule out a medical cause for the feelings of anxiety.

Substance use

Heavy or long-term use of substances such as alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines or sedatives can cause people to develop anxiety, particularly as the effects of the substance wear off. People with anxiety may find themselves using more of the substance to cope with withdrawal-related anxiety, which can lead to them feeling worse.

Personality factors

Some research suggests that people with certain personality traits are more likely to have anxiety. For example, children who are perfectionists, easily flustered, lack self-esteem or want to control everything, sometimes develop anxiety during childhood or as adults.

Everyone is different and it’s often a combination of factors that can contribute to a person developing anxiety. It’s important to note that you can’t always identify the cause of it or change difficult circumstances.

The most important thing is to recognise the signs and symptoms of anxiety and to seek help. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can recover.

Do I have Anxiety?

The symptoms of anxiety are sometimes not all that obvious as they often develop gradually and, given that we all experience some anxiety at some points in time, it can be hard to know how much is too much.

Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • hot and cold flushes

  • racing heart

  • tightening of the chest

  • snowballing worries

  • obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour.

What can I do?

How a psychologist can help

Through discussion with the client and the possible use of questionnaires and monitoring tools, your recommended psychologist develops an understanding of the potential factors involved in the onset and maintenance of the individual’s symptoms of anxiety. A treatment plan is then developed by the psychologist together with the individual. For anxiety disorders, this can involve CBT strategies to help bring about changes in thinking or behavioural responses.

A good psychologist will also assist their client to address any lifestyle factors which may increase their capacity to better manage their difficulties, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. They may also suggest involving a supportive family member or friend to assist in the understanding of the individual’s situation and to support treatment.

Evidence-based psychological approaches and strategies

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) has been found to be the most effective treatment of anxiety disorders. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps an individual to modify unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours. CBT combines some of the following strategies for identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts:

Problem solving

An important step in the management of anxiety is the use of problem solving skills to help the individual cope with situations or thoughts that are making them stressed or anxious. Structured problem solving involves identifying the problem, developing and selecting a solution to the problem, implementing the solution, and evaluating its helpfulness.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a CBT technique where your psychologist guides you through a series of real or imaginary scenarios to confront specific fears or distressing thoughts. Through a gradual process of exposure, the individual learns to deal with the frightening situation or object with decreased levels of anxiety.

Cognitive restructuring

Feelings of anxiety sometimes stem from an individual’s negative or maladaptive thoughts. Cognitive restructuring is a technique used by psychologists to help the individual challenge negative thoughts and develop a more rational and helpful style of thinking.

Mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness techniques can be used to redirect an individual’s attention from negative thinking. In using these techniques, recommended psychologists help individuals focus on present moment experiences without worrying about the future or making any type of judgement about their current thoughts, physical sensations, or environment.

Meditation and relaxation techniques

Many individuals who experience high levels of anxiety often report that they have trouble relaxing. Learning a relaxation technique, such as meditation or muscle relaxation, has been found to be an effective anxiety treatment.

Relaxation techniques can be taught by psychologists and if practiced regularly, can help individuals’ maintain a manageable level of anxiety in their daily lives.

Lifestyle changes

In addition to the above psychological techniques, making simple changes to a person’s lifestyle can help minimise the experience of anxiety. Developing a lifestyle to include regular exercise, having low or no intake of alcohol and caffeine, engaging in enjoyable activities, improving time-management skills and having adequate sleep can help to reduce an individual’s anxiety levels.

Phone: (02) 4244 7054


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