What is Anxiety?

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Feeling anxious, worried and fearful from time to time is a normal part of life. However if anxiety is overwhelming, creates problems in our relationships, or holds us back from engaging in activities, it can be debilitating to the point that it becomes an anxiety disorder. 

The physical symptoms of anxiety are sensations ranging from a racing heartbeat to shortness of breath, sweating, stomach aches, numbness, pins and needles in our arms or legs, and muscle tension in the head, chest and neck. 

If our thinking becomes dominated by the potential of things going wrong, someone being harmed or the possibility of humiliation, and it is hard to concentrate on what is happening in our day, we need to ask for help. 

Anxiety can be physically and emotionally uncomfortable, drain us of energy, and affect our sleep, libido and appetite. There are many types of anxiety and each of them have different symptoms. There are a number of ways to alleviate anxiety, some of which you can try on your own.

Strategies to try now

Making lifestyle changes can be a helpful start to reducing the symptoms of anxiety. The most commonly recommended tips that can sometimes lessen the effect anxiety has on our lives are:

Making sleep a priority
Being physically active
Eating consistent meals and keeping a healthy diet
Quitting smoking
Speaking about difficulties we are having with someone we trust
Learning and practicing relaxation techniques
Practicing mindfulness, try this useful app to get you started
Keeping socially active
Reducing alcohol and non-prescription drug intake
Reducing caffeinated beverages
Maintaining a daily routine
Doing things that give us a sense of pleasure and achievement
Expressing ourselves through writing, or another creative outlet

On average, one in four Australians will experience debilitating anxiety at some point in their lives.

What types of anxiety disorders are there?

Anxiety disorders have been categorised into areas based on the focus of the fear. They include:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

“I can’t stop thinking about it”

Generalised anxiety disorder is when worries and fears become excessive, the thoughts are uncontrollable and they hold us back from enjoying life. When this happens we are constantly thinking of the worst case scenario and that a small event could turn into something catastrophic.

Worrying is rarely constructive and often depletes your energy. This makes it harder to proactively fix the things that concern you. A constant state of worry can lead to trouble concentrating, tense muscles and trouble sleeping which all cause the distress of anxiety to worsen.

Health Anxiety

“There is something really wrong with me”

It is normal to be concerned with maintaining our health but when a desire to avoid illness becomes a preoccupation and causes distress, it is called ‘health anxiety’. Formerly known as hypochondriasis, this fear of poor health preoccupies is.  

It is not uncommon for people with health anxiety to attribute normal bodily sensations to a serious or life threatening disease. They then repeatedly check their physical symptoms for any progression in the illness. 

Health anxiety can lead some people to repeatedly seek reassurance from doctors or getting numerous medical tests. Although these may relieve their distress temporarily, they never feel sure that they are okay. Others that suffer with health anxiety might keep away from doctors altogether so they avoid the distress of finding out their worst fear, that is, that they are unwell.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

“If I do this, it will make things okay”

The phrase “OCD” is often used colloquially to refer to someone who is perfectionistic, however, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a serious problem and may even be debilitating. A person has OCD when they have unwanted thoughts, images or impulses and/or may need to repeat certain behaviours to reduce their fear. These behaviours or rituals make them feel safe, more in control and reduce their fears of causing harm to others. 

Put simply, anxiety comes to play in obsessive compulsive disorder as repeated worries and thoughts cause anxious feelings to arise, while habitual actions can become a way to make you feel safe again. 

The specifics of obsessive compulsive disorder vary from person to person but many commonly recognised forms include fears of dirt or germs, excessive cleaning, a need to gain symmetry of objects or repetitively checking if an activity has been completed even when they know it has been done.  Most people with OCD know that their obsessions and compulsions do not make sense, but they find it difficult to ignore or stop them.

Additional Resources to assist with OCD:

OCD Coping Skills

Panic Disorder

“If my heart beats too fast I might have a heart attack”

Panic attacks are the sudden rush of fear with physical feelings including a racing heart, shortness of breath and dizziness or trembling, to name a few. The symptoms feel profound and seem to come “out of the blue”, so it isn’t uncommon for people to mistake panic attacks for a medical issue and this can lead to a fear of having the symptoms again. 

When someone has repeated panic attacks, they develop Panic Disorder, worry about having panic attacks for fear that they will cause a more serious medical problem or even death. 

People with Panic Disorder often avoid situations that trigger panic attacks, for example catching public transport, driving on busy highways or going to the hairdresser. Avoiding these situations can therefore be limiting to their lives. 

Additional Resources for Panic Disorder:

Centre for Clinical Interventions

How to Cope with Panic Attacks


“This isn’t good enough”

Although perfectionism is commonly seen as a positive trait, it is also a cause of anxiety, depression and a strain on relationships. Striving to do our best is admirable as it can be a driver in meeting goals and a motivating factor when faced with obstacles. As perfection is not achievable or sustainable, striving for perfection can lead to high levels of judgement, criticism and disappointment. This in turn can result in poor self confidence and reduced motivation to try new things or experiment.

Perfectionism involves having high and unrelenting standards, judging your self worth based on your ability to meet those standards, and keeping these standards up even when they come at a huge personal cost. 

These high standards can also cause an inflexibility that leads to stress within yourself and for those around you. Perfectionism can play out as an excessive concern about making mistakes (sometimes leading to inaction), a need for exceptional levels of organisation, high parental expectations, excessive self criticism and unrelenting standards. Nothing feels ever good enough. 

Additional Resources for Perfectionism:

Centre for Clinical Interventions

Anxiety Canada

The Perfectionist Trap

Social Anxiety Disorder

“They will laugh at me or make fun of me”

Social anxiety is an intense fear of being disliked and judged by others. This fear goes beyond a usual desire to have friends and be accepted by others, it is excessive and persistent self-consciousness that leads to avoidance of situations where there is a perceived risk of being judged negatively. Those with social anxiety might keep away from opportunities to speak in front of others, interact at parties and other events, or even being unable to make direct eye contact. 

People may mistakenly view those with social anxiety as shy, disinterested or even rude when in fact it is fear that keeps them from engaging the way they would like to.

Additional Resources for Social Anxiety Disorder:

e-couch Social Anxiety Program

How to be Yourself: Quiet your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety

Getting Professional Help

Evidence based treatments make the biggest difference.

The good news is that there are a number of very effective treatments now available for anxiety disorders. These include various medications and psychological treatments. Scientifically, the best studied and most demonstrated techniques include medications such as SSRIs and the psychological techniques often referred to as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Talking with your GP is the best place to make a start. They can assist you to get help for yourself or someone you care about. After talking about your symptoms and the situation you are in, the GP will direct you to a psychologist near you who specialises in the area that you need. You’re also welcome to call us for a chat: (02) 9906 5199.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some simple facts to help you understand Anxiety and how you can best manage it.

How common is anxiety?

The National Health Survey reports that in 2017-2018, 3.2 million Australians had an anxiety related condition. On average, one in four Australians will experience anxiety at some point in their lives.

Warning signs & symptoms of anxiety

Some of the most common signs of anxiety include:

  • Being worried or afraid most of the time
  • Feeling tense or irritable
  • Being restless and unsettled
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trembling or sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Avoiding activities that might cause anxiety

Risk factors for anxiety

Some life circumstances can result in an increased risk of anxiety. The most common risk factors include:

  • Experiences of trauma
  • Stress due to health challenges
  • Compounding, or long-term, life stresses, such as moving house, changes to employment or a death in the family
  • Depression, or other mood difficulties
  • A genetic predisposition to anxiety

Life after anxiety

Although anxiety is an emotion that we all experience and we need to survive, having anxious feelings to such an extent that they don’t go away over time, make it hard for you to cope with the daily demands in life, or reduce your enjoyment and/or engagement in activities that are important and meaningful to you in life, are reasons to seek help.

While experiencing persistent anxiety can feel uncontrollable, overwhelming, and disabling, it’s important to know that help is available. There are treatments that have demonstrated their effectiveness in helping individuals not only manage their anxiety symptoms, but to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives. We offer cognitive behavioural therapy for all of the anxiety disorders as well as for problems related to anxiety, such as depression, relationship difficulties, or work-related stress. Like all mental illnesses, the journey to recovery from anxiety symptoms is not perfectly straight; rather, for some individuals, this process is filled with ups and downs as they face new challenges, reach new milestones, and reclaim the pieces of their lives that had been lost or impacted by persistent anxiety. Given that it is not uncommon for anxious feelings to return, particularly during stressful periods in life, an important part of your therapy will involve providing you the skills to help you cope with future challenges in life, to build your sense of confidence and resilience in managing your symptoms, and to identify the signs that suggest you may benefit from further support. Further resources about treatment for anxiety are listed above. Our Client Services Manager, Simone, will also be able to assist you to see one of our anxiety specialists.

Anxiety Myths

``Just wait anxiety out and it will pass``
Anxiety Myth 1
``Medication is the only way to overcome anxiety``
Anxiety Myth 2
``Social anxiety is the same as being shy``
Anxiety Myth 3
``Someone with anxiety should avoid any situation that might cause them stress``
Anxiety Myth 4

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