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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the body’s physical response to a threat or perceived threat. It causes a pounding heart, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach and a burst of energy as well as mental responses such as excessive fears, worries or obsessive thinking.

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. It helps us to avoid danger by giving us energy and alertness to escape. But for some people, anxious feelings don’t go away. They can see situations as much worse than they really are, and their anxiety affects their ability to concentrate, sleep and carry out ordinary tasks. These feelings can be caused by anxiety disorders.

At any time, if you feel that you may harm yourself or have thoughts of suicide, call an ambulance on triple zero (000). You can also talk to family or friends, your doctor or call a phone service such as Lifeline on 13 11 14, available 24 hours a day.

Anxiety disorders are the most common group of mental health conditions in Australia and affect 1 in 4 Australians at some stage in their life.

The common types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder: Excessive, uncontrollable worry about a range of ordinary issues such as health, work or finances.

  • Social phobia or social anxiety disorder: A disorder that causes people to avoid social or performance situations for fear of being embarrassed or rejected.

  • Panic disorder: Regular panic attacks, which are sudden intense episodes of irrational fear, shortness of breath, dizziness and other physical symptoms.

  • Agoraphobia: Avoiding certain situations due to fear of having a panic attack (agoraphobia is often associated with panic disorder).

  • Specific phobias: Irrational fears that only apply to one particular situation, such as a fear of animals, insects, places or people. For example, claustrophobia is a specific fear of enclosed or confined spaces.

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Unwanted thoughts and impulses (obsessions), causing repetitive, routine behaviours (compulsions) as a way of coping with anxiety.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): When feelings of fear or avoidance do not fade after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic life event. It involves upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares and difficulties sleeping.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

You may have an anxiety disorder if you often feel scared, worried or nervous, or if you always worry that something bad is going to happen.

Anxiety can affect someone’s ability to concentrate, sleep and carry out ordinary tasks at work, home or school. People with anxiety disorders often feel they have to avoid stressful situations and, in extreme cases, avoid going out altogether.

Physical symptoms are common and include shortness of breath, a pounding heart and trembling hands.

You can find more information about anxiety symptoms here.

What causes anxiety?

The causes of anxiety and the reason anxiety affects some people to the point where it interferes with their lives are not fully understood.

A range of factors are thought to contribute to anxiety symptoms, which can then go on to become disorders. Most anxious people probably have genes that make them more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. Women are more likely to develop anxiety than men, but it is not clear why.

The risk factors for anxiety include:

  • family history — you are more likely to develop anxiety if you have a family history of anxiety or other mental health issues (though it doesn't mean if there are mental health issues in your family you will develop anxiety)

  • having another mental health issue

  • ongoing stressful situations, such as job issues or changes, unstable accommodation, family or relationship breakdown and grief

  • any kind of abuse (such as physical, sexual, verbal or domestic abuse)

  • life-threatening events

  • pregnancy and childbirth

  • physical health issues such as asthmadiabetesheart disease or hormonal issues, such as thyroid problems

  • substance use — particularly cannabis, amphetamines, alcohol and sedatives — or withdrawing from drugs and alcohol

  • consuming caffeine, as well as some non-prescription and herbal medicines

  • having a certain personality type, such as being a perfectionist, having low self-esteem or needing to be in control


Everyone is different and often a combination of factors contributes to developing an anxiety disorder.

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