What is anxiety?

BY Added Health Editorial Team | 26 May 2023

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that needn’t completely derail us.

Fear is a normal human response to threat. It’s very useful if we are being chased by a bear in the forest as it helps us to fight back or to run. After the threat has passed our bodies return to normal. In our modern world however, we are afraid responses not of bears in the forest but of e-mails, phone calls, failure, or social embarrassment, and our bodies never have the chance to return to a relaxed state. This is anxiety, which is a very unpleasant feeling. Anxiety symptoms can last for some time — going on for a couple of weeks or even longer, sometimes persisting in the background of our day to day lives.

Anxiety arises when we ruminate about the past, or when we imagine difficulties in our own future or in the world in general. Anxious thoughts can also be related to our relationships with others, or to how we imagine others perceive us. Specific triggers of anxiety can be unconscious, so we might not realise immediately where it is coming from. With practice and patience, we can learn to recognise the feelings and triggers and learn to develop healthy coping strategies.

Some people worry that the physical symptoms of anxiety, like a fast heartbeat, are signs of a serious health problem. Although the sensation of anxiety is unpleasant, this emotional state does not itself cause high blood pressure, heart attacks, stomach ulcers and the like. Indeed, the fear of symptoms can make us even more anxious, which creates a cycle of anxiety.

It’s certainly true that some of the behaviours associated with coping with anxiety, can affect our health, such as the use of tobacco, alcohol, overeating, or compulsive use of devices.

What causes anxiety?

Many people don’t immediately know what the underlying causes of their anxiety might be, but with careful self-examination, or through honest conversation, one can find the reasons for it.

Can you feel anxiety right now? If so, stop, and take a few moments to reflect on this. Where do you feel it in your body? Now ask yourself “what am I afraid of? What am I worried about?“

How can we start to help ourselves?

It’s important to remember that fear is a completely normal, natural human response to something perceived as threatening. However, anxiety which persists, is something that can be managed. While you can’t rid yourself of anxiety or stress completely, you can learn to respond to it in more skilful ways. Seeing anxiety for what it is — a sensation or feeling, linked to a thought — can take some of its power away and give you the space to tackle the situation from a position of awareness, self-compassion and understanding. In fact self-compassion has a range of benefits across different psychosocial forms of distress including anxiety.

Below we have highlighted several ways in which we can help ourselves here:

Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation helps calm your mind and reduce anxiety.
Exercise regularly
Regular exercise boosts your mood and reduces stress and anxiety at the same time. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day if you can.
Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep makes anxiety worse. Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
Eat a balanced diet
Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps you maintain your energy levels and reduce anxiety.
Limit caffeine and alcohol
Caffeine and alcohol can increase anxiety symptoms, so limit your intake or avoid them altogether.
Reduce multitasking
Many people pride themselves on being able to do more than one thing at the same time. This is the opposite of being mindful and increases stress. Try doing one thing at a time.
Minimise screen time
For many people devices have become a big part of life. The screens themselves can tire the mind and interfere with sleep. Also stressful is the information that the screens deliver such as demanding e-mails, stressful appointments and to do lists. Devices can also be used to engage in mindlessly numbing activities, such as hours of social media, games, puzzles or dating sites, which can be fun for a while but may become addictive, and are ultimately not helpful in relieving anxiety.
Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment without judgment.
Mindfulness can help reduce anxiety by allowing you to stay focused on what’s happening in the moment
instead of worrying about the future. Meditation is a great way to develop mindfulness and has proven benefits in reducing anxiety and stress.
Challenge negative thoughts
When you have negative thoughts, challenge them by questioning their validity and coming up with more positive and realistic thoughts.
Seek support
Talk to a friend, family member, or therapist about your anxiety. Sometimes just talking about your feelings can help reduce anxiety.
Remember that everyone experiences anxiety differently, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s essential to find what works for you and make it a part of your regular routine.

The take-home message

Fear is an important and protective human response. Anxiety, however, is the fear response which is overblown and goes on for longer than necessary. When we learn to recognise anxiety and investigate why it might be happening, we can minimise behaviours that increase it and take actions to reduce it, finding calmness and relaxation.
Call, D., Miron, L. and Orcutt, H. (2014) ‘Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress’, Mindfulness, 5 pp. 658–668. Available at:

Ferrari, M. et al. (2019) ‘Self-compassion interventions and psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis of RCTS’, Mindfulness, 10(8), pp. 1455–1473. doi:10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6.