23/03/2016 07:09 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 05:12 GMT

What It Means to Have an Anxiety Disorder

Your heart is beating, your palms are sweaty and you feel like you might just be sick. You might be about to give a big presentation, take your driving test or walk down the aisle. Or you may be on your commute to work, going into a busy place or simply crossing the road.

For life changing events, you're bound to be nervous. It's a natural response to unusual or high stress situations. But what if it isn't? What if your nerves are getting the better of you in everyday life? You may be experiencing an anxiety disorder - a type of medical condition characterised by feelings of anxiety and fear. But how can you tell if you are experiencing an anxiety disorder or if it's 'just a case of nerves'?

Anxiety disorders, which are thought to affect over 8 million people in the UK,* are characterised by longevity of the feeling. If you worry that something bad will happen, fear the worst, find it hard to relax, get flustered or look out for things that could go wrong - on a regular basis - you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.

It's perfectly normal to feel anxious from time to time. In fact it's a natural reaction to new situations and, in earlier stages of human evolution, helped us to survive by activating the 'fight or flight' response. While that response may still be useful (indeed, it may be a life saver in dangerous situations), if it is triggered persistently and inappropriately, we still experience its physical effects. And it's when these become unmanageable that it becomes a concern to a person's wellbeing.

Managing an anxiety disorder is challenging but there are some simple steps you can take to deal with it.

  • Lifestyle changes: Consider your diet, exercise and sleep habits. Getting enough sleep and exercise and having a well balanced diet, will contribute both to your mental and physical wellbeing.
  • Adjust your thinking: Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which helps people to think and act differently in relation to their condition, is a well established treatment for anxiety disorders. Mindfulness can also help by enabling you to focus on the 'here and now' as opposed to 'what could be'.
  • Talk to someone: If you are really struggling with your feelings, the best thing to do is tell someone about it. This could be a family member or a friend, a helpline such as those provided by Anxiety UK, Mind and Rethink Mental Health, or a healthcare professional such your GP.

Feelings of anxiety affect most of us at one time or another and are perfectly normal and will generally pass. But, if you find you can't control your fears and your feelings of anxiety persist to the point they disrupt your daily life, then it's time to act.

*Fineberg NA, Haddad PM, Carpenter L et al (2013). The size, burden and cost of disorders of the brain in the UK. Journal of Psychopharmacology 27(9): 761-770: