for better mental health

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.

Can anxiety problems be inherited genetically?

Research shows that having a close relative with anxiety problems increases your chances of experiencing anxiety problems yourself. But at the moment there is not enough evidence to show whether this is because we share some genetic factors that make us more vulnerable to developing anxiety, or because we learn particular ways of thinking and behaving from our parents and other family members as we grow up.

Past or childhood experiences

Difficult experiences in childhood, adolescence or adulthood are a common trigger for anxiety problems. Going through stress and trauma is likely to have a particularly big impact if it happens when you're very young. Experiences which can trigger anxiety problems include things like:

  • physical or emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • losing a parent
  • being bullied or being socially excluded.

Having parents who don't treat you warmly, are overprotective or are emotionally inconsistent can also be a factor.

"I was sent to boarding school and suffered acute separation anxiety, being away from home, and my brother nearly died when I was 12. My mum had an acute breakdown for a period of about a year and had to be home-nursed."

Your current life situation

Current issues or problems in your life can also trigger anxiety. For example:

  • exhaustion or a build up of stress
  • long working hours
  • being out of work
  • feeling under pressure while studying or in work
  • having money problems
  • homelessness or housing problems
  • losing someone close to you
  • feeling lonely or isolated
  • being bullied, harassed or abused.

(See our pages on managing stress, staying mentally well at work, student wellbeing, money, housing, bereavement, loneliness and abuse for more information and sources of support on these issues.)

"I have recently realised that I spend money when anxious, which in turn makes me feel anxious about how much I'm spending."

Physical or mental health problems

Other health problems can sometimes cause anxiety, or might make it worse. For example:

  • Physical health problems – living with a serious, ongoing or life-threatening physical health condition can sometimes trigger anxiety.
  • Other mental health problems – it's also common to develop anxiety while living with other mental health problems, such as depression.

Drugs and medication

Anxiety can sometimes be a side effect of taking:

  • some psychiatric medications
  • some medications for physical health problems
  • recreational drugs or alcohol.

(See our pages on psychiatric drugs and recreational drugs and alcohol for more information. You can also report medication side effects on the government's Yellow Card website.)

Could diet be a factor?

Some types of food or drink can trigger symptoms of anxiety or panic, or make them worse. These include sugar and caffeine. (See our pages on food and mood for more information about the relationship between what you eat and how you feel.)

"I have… cut out alcohol. Many think [drinking alcohol] helps with anxiety, but it actually makes it worse in the long run."

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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