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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as having feelings of unease, worry or fear that can range from being fairly mild to extremely severe.

When feelings of worry (about an exam or job interview for example) become so bad that they become constant and uncontrollable, the person is usually said to be suffering from anxiety.

Renowned life coach Padma Coram says: “Anxiety starts out as a feeling in the mind; as an emotional thought. Then, we start to imagine that feeling as real, and our body works to match this emotion by producing a range of physical responses associated with anxiety.”

“There are two types of anxiety, positive and negative, and how we handle the feeling initially determines which type of anxiety we experience. Positive anxiety is where we use our anxious feelings to push ourselves in any situation to be the best we can be. These situations can include doing well in an interview to get a good job, pushing ourselves to do well in a test or even winning the Olympics.”

“Negative anxiety is where we let our feelings of worry and unease get the better of us, dominating our actions and dragging us down as a result. Negative anxiety can lead to anything from headaches, ulcers, hair loss, skin eruptions, weight gain, insomnia and immune breakdown, to heart attacks and suicide if left untreated and uncontrolled.”

“With positive anxiety, we use the physical properties of hormones like adrenaline to spur us on and help us focus on achieving positive goals. With negative anxiety, the adrenaline levels do not return to normal thus giving you a feeling of constant unrest and unease. This in turn drains us, and we become far more vulnerable to the negative and far less able to focus on the positive.”

We spoke to expert psychologist Elaine Slater who added: "Anxiety is a broad term for several disorders; these disorders affect how we feel, think and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms. Anxiety disorders causing nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying include:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder

  • Panic Disorder

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Social Anxiety Disorder

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder

  • Specific Phobias

Generalised anxiety disorder symptoms include; constant worrying, feeling on edge and being unable to relax, which prevents pleasure in day to day life.”

What causes anxiety?

Although it is not known exactly what causes anxiety, a combination of the following factors are thought to play a role:

  • overactive areas in the parts of the brain that deal with emotions and behaviour

  • an imbalance of the chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline in the brain (the chemicals involved in the regulation of mood)

  • something you have picked up in early life from the people close to you, or the genes you inherit from your parents

  • having suffered stressful or traumatic experiences as a child, such as domestic abuse or bullying

  • having a painful, long-term health condition

  • having previously suffered from drug or alcohol misuse

What are the psychological effects of anxiety?

Elaine explains: “The emotional effects of anxiety are feeling fearful, alert, on edge, irritable and unable to relax. You may feel overwhelmed, weepy, needy, insecure, lonely or depressed.

“Anxiety also effects the way you think (cognitive symptoms); you may start to see everything negatively and become very pessimistic. You may also experience constant worrying, fear, an inability to concentrate, a racing mind and memory problems.”

What are the physical effects of anxiety?

Elaine describes the physical effects of anxiety as including the following:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Rapid breathing

  • Pounding heart (raised blood pressure)

  • Light headed and shaky

  • Headaches

  • Insomnia

  • Exhaustion

  • Skin conditions (acne, psoriasis, eczema)

  • IBS

  • Depression

  • Weight gain or loss

Anxiety and the gut

“The gut acts as a “second brain” when it comes to anxiety," says Elaine. "In fact like our brain, our digestive system has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. When we’re anxious, millions of receptors embedded in the gastrointestinal tract react to fear by speeding up or slowing down our digestion, which can lead to nausea, heartburn and diarrhoea.

"The gut produces 85% of the body's serotonin; a neurotransmitter responsible for mood stability. When anxiety inhibits the proper function of the gut our serotonin production is negatively impacted.

"Soothe the gut with herbs: lemon balm, chamomile, liquorice and peppermint and include anti inflammatory and alkaline foods in your diet.”

What treatment options are available for anxiety?

Treatment options for anxiety can often vary widely, but will usually be either psychological or medical. In some cases, your GP may suggest trying a number of self-help or psychological treatment options before you opt for medical intervention. However, if these treatments do not help or you prefer not to use them, you will be offered medication.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors

A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, is a type of antidepressant used to increase the levels of serotonin (the chemical which maintains mood balance) in your brain. These can be taken on a long term basis but can take a few weeks to start working. They can also have unpleasant side effects, including nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, dizziness, loss of appetite and insomnia. While most symptoms tend to settle over time as your body gets used to the medication, if you feel the side effects are not improving you can return to your GP who may prescribe different SSRIs.

Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors

Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, are another type of antidepressant used to increase the levels of both serotonin and noradrenaline in the brain. These come with similar side effects to SSRIs, but again these should ease off over time.


If SSRIs and SNRIs have failed to help ease your anxiety, you may be offered pregabalin. This is known as an anticonvulsant, and is used to treat conditions such as epilepsy. However, it has also been found to be benefical when used to treat anxiety.


Benzodiazepines are a sedative and may be used as a short-term treatment during severe bouts of anxiety. They help ease symptoms within 30 to 90 minutes of taking the medication, but will only ever be prescribed for two to four weeks at a time as they can become addictive and may also lose their effectiveness if used for longer periods.

What psychological treatments are available?

If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you will usually be advised to try psychological treatment before you start taking any medication.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, aims to help you understand how your problems, thoughts and feelings work with each other. It encourages you to question your negative thoughts and do things you would usually avoid as a result of your anxiety. CBT is usually carried out by a specially trained therapist, once a week for three to four months.

Applied relaxation

Like with CBT, applied relaxation therapy is usually conducted by a specially trained therapist, once a week for between three and four months. It involves focusing on relaxing your muscles in a particular way during anxious situations, and learning to respond quickly to certain triggers, such as the word ‘relax’.

Are there any self-help options?

Life Coach Padma Coram suggests the following things to help control your anxiety at home:

  • Diet - Having a healthy and balanced diet can have a big impact where anxiety is concerned. Ensure you are getting enough of what you need for your body to function, and visit your GP if you are unsure about any part of your diet. Supplements can also help, so find out if you are suffering from any deficiencies and aim to get these sorted if you are prone to bouts of anxiety.

  • Exercise - Exercise can also help prevent feelings of anxiety in some people. Get guidance from your doctor or a fitness expert if you are unsure of where to begin - yoga, Pilates, cycling and stretching can all help relieve tension caused by anxiety.

  • Discipline - Maintaining healthy boundaries can really help if you are suffering from anxiety. Cut down your TV time, surround yourself with positive people and share your experience with friends or experts.

Elaine Slater’s top tips for beating anxiety:

  • Be mindful of ‘sleep hygiene’; ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark and comfortable as this will allow the nervous system to relax and repair itself.

  • Switch off electronic equipment one hour before bed.

  • Use a sauna/steam room to reduce muscle tension.

  • Try a mindfulness meditation.

  • Herbal remedies, chamomile tea and lavender oil can all help to calm the body.

  • Laugh a little to elevate your sense of wellbeing.

  • Break the worry loop with some deep belly breathing.

  • Spend some time with the family pet.

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