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 does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety feels different for everyone. You might experience some of the things listed below, and you might also have other experiences or difficulties that aren't listed here.

Effects on your body

  • a churning feeling in your stomach
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • pins and needles
  • feeling restless or unable to sit still
  • headaches, backache or other aches and pains
  • faster breathing
  • a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • problems sleeping
  • grinding your teeth, especially at night
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • needing the toilet more or less often
  • changes in your sex drive
  • having panic attacks.

The physical effects of anxiety

Watch Alex talk about the physical impact anxiety has on his body in this video:

Effects on your mind

  • feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
  • having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
  • feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
  • feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you
  • feeling like you can't stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying
  • worrying about anxiety itself, for example worrying about when panic attacks might happen
  • wanting lots of reassurance from other people or worrying that people are angry or upset with you
  • worrying that you're losing touch with reality
  • rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
  • depersonalisation – feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you're watching someone else (this is a type of dissociation)
  • derealisation – feeling disconnected from the world around you, or like the world isn't real (this is a type of dissociation)
  • worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future – you can read more about these sorts of worries on the Anxiety UK website.

(See our pages on sleep problems, panic attacks and dissociative disorders for more information about these topics, and tips on how to cope.)

"I could feel all these physical symptoms building inside me, literally filling every part of my body until I felt completely light-headed and disembodied."

Anxiety and physical health problems

Some studies suggest that experiencing anxiety could increase the risk of developing certain long-term physical health problems, including diabetes, stomach ulcers and heart problems. But there's not enough evidence to say for sure exactly what the risks are, or what groups of people are most likely to be affected. Having a physical illness or disability can also make you feel stressed and anxious, so it might sometimes feel like your anxiety problems and physical health problems are part of a vicious circle.

Sometimes it might be difficult to work out whether your symptoms are totally related to anxiety, or might be related to a different illness. If you're experiencing any physical symptoms it's best to talk to your GP, so they can check out what may be causing them.

"I constantly thought I was dying of undiagnosed illnesses, because I was convinced that the physical symptoms were too bad to be ‘just anxiety’."

How else might anxiety affect my life?

Anxiety symptoms can last for a long time, or come and go. You might find you have difficulty with day-to-day aspects of your life, including:

  • looking after yourself
  • holding down a job
  • forming or maintaining relationships
  • trying new things
  • simply enjoying your leisure time.

Confronting my social anxiety at university

"...I quickly felt lonely, overwhelmed and, at times, quite depressed due to my social skills, or lack thereof."

In some cases anxiety can have a serious impact on your ability to work. (See our pages on how to be mentally healthy at work for information on how to cope. Our legal pages on discrimination at work can provide information about your rights in the workplace.)

If you drive you may have to tell the DVLA that you have anxiety. (For information on your right to drive, including when and how to contact the DVLA, see our legal pages on fitness to drive.)

This information was published in September 2017. We will revise it in 2020.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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