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’.


Living with GAD & panic attacks after losing my Dad

“I really believe that talking is one of the best therapies you can have.”Read Zoe’s story

Mental Health in a Time of Pandemic

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The ongoing Covid-19 outbreak is in many ways unprecedented, in both the scale of this challenge, the scale of public health response, and the historical context in which all this is unfolding. Covid-19 is the first global pandemic of the social media age, the first of the “alternative facts” era, and is occurring at a moment when politics and society seem to be in a state of accelerated flux.

Yet for all that is new about Covid-19, the disease still behaves like any number of prior epidemics. It is, for example, similar to the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, an event which created a number of lessons for our present moment. SARS was, in many ways, the best-case scenario for responding to a global infectious threat. The spread of SARS was contained fairly quickly by public health efforts, chiefly through the widespread use of quarantine. But even this relative success still had consequences for health. In 2004, I worked with colleagues on a study of SARS control and the psychological effects of quarantine in Toronto, Canada. We found among quarantined persons a high prevalence of psychological distress, including symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A key takeaway: Even if we can halt the physical spread of a disease through the expeditious use of quarantine and social distancing, we will still have to contend with its mental health effects in the long-term.

This is a message that is frequently forgotten. The mental health effects of Covid-19 can shape health for many years, long past the events that precipitated them. We have been focusing, correctly, on saving lives and mitigating the short-term consequences of Covid-19, but the long-term consequences may be equally, if not more, important. While it can be difficult to take the long view when the events of the moment are so compelling, it is necessary, if we are to ensure the steps we take now are in the best interest of public health once this pandemic passes and our task moves from one of response to one of recovery.

To envision how this long-term future may unfold, it helps to look to the past, and not just to past epidemics. Protests, riots, mass uprisings, and natural disasters can also teach us much about how large-scale, disruptive events can shape mental health. What do we know about the consequences of such events?

In a study published earlier this year, I worked with colleagues to investigate the mental health effects of protests, riots, and revolutions. Our work looked at the immediate effects of these events, as well as their long-term consequences. We found that the prevalence of depression and PTSD among populations after collective actions like protests and riots is comparable to levels experienced after natural disasters and terrorist attacks. This was the case for populations directly and indirectly affected by such events, suggesting a “spillover effect,” as anxiety over a disruptive event ripples through communities. We see similar effects after natural disasters, where mental health consequences can include depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders.

Then there are the economic effects of such events. In the case of Covid-19, we have already seen traces of these effects in the falling stock market, but the fortunes of Wall Street do not reflect what may be the true cost of this pandemic. With so many eyes focused on the stock market, it is possible to miss that the economic brunt of Covid-19 will likely be borne by low-wage, hourly workers, who can ill-afford the time away from work that containing the disease may necessitate. This will have consequences for health. Income is closely linked to health—physical and mental. There is, for example, a 10 to 15 year difference in life expectancy between Americans at the very bottom of the economic ladder and those at the very top, and income inequality has been linked with depression risk. Covid-19 could deepen this inequality over the long-term, even as, in the short-term, it undermines the peace of mind necessary for robust mental health, and compounds the challenges of people already prone to mental health struggles.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder which you may develop after being involved in, or witnessing, traumatic events. The condition was first recognised in war veterans and has been known by a variety of names, such as ‘shell shock’. But it’s not only diagnosed in soldiers – a wide range of traumatic experiences can cause PTSD.

“When something traumatic happens in your life it rocks you to the core. The world is no longer a safe place. It becomes somewhere that bad things can and do happen.”

What is it like to have PTSD

When is it diagnosed?

When you go through something you find traumatic it’s understandable to experience some symptoms associated with PTSD afterwards, such as feeling numb or having trouble sleeping. This is sometimes described as an ‘acute stress reaction’.

Many people find that these symptoms disappear within a few weeks, but if your symptoms last for longer than a month, you might be given a diagnosis of PTSD. Your GP might refer you to a specialist before this if your symptoms are particularly severe.

“I started experiencing symptoms of PTSD after my boyfriend died. I suffered extremely vivid flashbacks that could happen at any time, anywhere, and were deeply distressing… I threw myself into another relationship very quickly to try and avoid how I was feeling, but then also would not express much affection to my new partner.”

Are there different types of PTSD?

If you are given a diagnosis of PTSD, you might be told that you have mild, moderate or severe PTSD. This explains what sort of impact your symptoms are having on you currently – it’s not a description of how frightening or upsetting your experiences might have been.

PTSD may be described differently in some situations:

  • Delayed-onset PTSD – if your symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma, this might be described as ‘delayed PTSD’ or ‘delayed-onset PTSD’.
  • Complex PTSD – if you experienced trauma at an early age or it lasted for a long time, you might be given a diagnosis of ‘complex PTSD’. (See our page on complex PTSD for more information.)
  • Birth trauma – PTSD that develops after a traumatic experience of childbirth is also known as ‘birth trauma’. (See our page on PTSD and birth trauma for more information.)

If you experience some PTSD symptoms while supporting someone close to you who’s experienced trauma, this is sometimes known as ‘secondary trauma’.

“I couldn’t understand why I felt like my brain wasn’t functioning – I couldn’t remember things, I couldn’t process things. It was like my brain had just slowed down and ground to a halt.”

Experiences of facing stigma

There are lots of misconceptions about PTSD. For example, people may wrongly assume it means you are ‘dwelling’ on past events. They might even suggest that you should ‘get over it’ or ‘move on’. But having PTSD isn’t a choice or a sign of weakness, and it’s important to remember that you are not alone.

Anxiety

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Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear which, when persistent and impacting on daily life may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which is one common type of anxiety disorder, is estimated to impact 5.9% of adults in England1.

Symptoms

Symptoms of anxiety include changes in thoughts and behaviour such as2:

  • Restlessnes
  • A feeling of dread
  • A feeling of being “on-edge”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability

It can also involve physical feelings such as dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations (a noticeably strong, fast heartbeat), sweating, shortness of breath, headache, or dry mouth.

Occasionally feeling anxious, particularly about events or situations that are challenging or threatening, is a normal and extremely common response. However, if feelings of anxiety regularly cause significant distress or they start to impact on your ability to carry out your daily life, for example withdrawing or avoiding contact with friends and family, feeling unable to go to work, or avoiding places and situations then it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder2.

Types of Anxiety Disorder

There are different types of anxiety disorder, each of which will have slightly different symptoms and treatment. Some examples of anxiety disorders include2-5:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder (regular sudden attacks of panic or fear)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Specific Phobias (overwhelming and incapacitating fear of a specific object, place, situation or feeling)

Causes

There are many different factors that may contribute to the development of mental health problems like anxiety disorders. These factors include biological factors (for example genetics6, experience of chronic physical illness or injury7 and psychological or social factors (experiences of trauma or adversity in childhood8, struggles with income or poverty1, employment status1, family and personal relationships, and living or work environment1.

Getting Support

There are a range of approaches for treatment and management of anxiety disorders, and the most appropriate method will vary depending on the type and severity of anxiety disorder, and personal circumstances.

Some common approaches to managing and treating anxiety disorders include:

Psychological Therapies:

This can involve working through thoughts, feelings and behaviours with a clinical psychologist or other mental health professional in regular sessions over a set period of time.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helps to teach strategies for recognising and overcoming distressing or anxious thoughts, is one of the most common therapies for treatment and management of anxiety disorders2,3,5.

Self-Help and Self-Management:

This involves specially-designed resources (like information sheets, workbooks, exercises, or online programmes and courses) to support people to manage their feelings of anxiety in their own time.

Some of these approaches may involve the support of a therapist or other mental health professional, and some may be entirely self-led2-5.

Group Support:

Group sessions with other individuals experiencing similar problems where people can work through ways of managing anxiety. Some groups may involve the support of a therapist or other mental health professional2.

Medication:

Your GP or other healthcare provider can discuss different medication options to manage both the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety. There is a range of medication that can be used to manage anxiety and it is important to discuss with your GP which one would be most appropriate for your circumstances2.

For more information about medication for anxiety disorders, visit the NHS Choices website.

Other Approaches

There may be other treatments or approaches available that are not outlined here. If you are considering support for anxiety disorders, we recommend getting in touch with your GP or primary care provider to discuss which approach may be best for you.