Anxiety and panic attacks

Explains anxiety and panic attacks, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

What are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety can be experienced in lots of different ways. If your experiences meet certain criteria your doctor might diagnose you with a specific anxiety disorder.

Some commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – this means having regular or uncontrollable worries about many different things in your everyday life. Because there are lots of possible symptoms of anxiety this can be quite a broad diagnosis, meaning that the problems you experience with GAD might be quite different from another person’s experiences.
  • Social anxiety disorder – this diagnosis means you experience extreme fear or anxiety triggered by social situations (such as parties, workplaces, or everyday situations where you have to talk to another person). It is also known as social phobia. See our page on types of phobia for more information.
  • Panic disorder – this means having regular or frequent panic attacks without a clear cause or trigger. Experiencing panic disorder can mean that you feel constantly afraid of having another panic attack, to the point that this fear itself can trigger your panic attacks. See our page on panic attacks for more information.
  • Phobias – a phobia is an extreme fear or anxiety triggered by a particular situation (such as going outside) or a particular object (such as spiders). See our pages on phobias for more information.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – this is a diagnosis you may be given if you develop anxiety problems after going through something you found traumatic. PTSD can involve experiencing flashbacks or nightmares which can feel like you’re re-living all the fear and anxiety you experienced at the time of the traumatic events. See our pages on PTSD and complex PTSD for more information.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – you may be given this diagnosis if your anxiety problems involve having repetitive thoughts, behaviours or urges. See our pages on OCD for more information.
  • Health anxiety – this means you experience obsessions and compulsions relating to illness, including researching symptoms or checking to see if you have them. It is related to OCD. You can find out more about health anxiety on the Anxiety UK website.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – this means you experience obsessions and compulsions relating to your physical appearance. See our pages on BDD for more information.
  • Perinatal anxiety or perinatal OCD – some people develop anxiety problems during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth. See our pages on perinatal anxiety and perinatal OCD for more information.

You might not have, or want, a diagnosis of a particular anxiety disorder – but it might still be useful to learn more about these different diagnoses to help you think about your own experiences of anxiety, and consider options for support.

Anxiety and other mental health problems

It’s very common to experience anxiety alongside other mental health problems, such as depression or suicidal feelings. If you have symptoms of both anxiety and depression but don’t fit one more clearly than the other, you might be given a diagnosis of ‘mixed anxiety and depressive disorder’.


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What Causes Anxiety

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Anxiety may be caused by a mental condition, a physical condition, the effects of drugs, or a combination of these. The doctor’s initial task is to see if your anxiety is a symptom of another medical condition.

Common causes of anxiety include these mental conditions:

These common external factors can cause anxiety:

  • Stress at work
  • Stress from school
  • Stress in a personal relationship such as marriage
  • Financial stress
  • Stress from global occurrences or political issues
  • Stress from unpredictable or uncertain world events, like a pandemic”
  • Stress from an emotional trauma such as the death of a loved one
  • Stress from a serious medical illness
  • Side effect of medication
  • Use of an illicit drug, such as cocaine
  • Symptom of a medical illness (such as heart attackheat strokehypoglycemia)
  • Lack of oxygen in circumstances as diverse as high altitude sickness, emphysema, or pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the vessels of the lung)

The doctor has the often-difficult task of determining which symptoms come from which causes. For example, in a study of people with chest pain — a sign of heart disease — 43% were found to have a panic disorder, not a heart-related condition.