What is anxiety?

Anxiety is normal and it is something that everyone experiences at times throughout their life. Feeling worried about sitting an exam, going to the doctor’s or attending a job interview is perfectly normal but once the event is over the anxiety should disappear.  Things like difficult family situations, employment or money difficulties can cause longer-lasting anxiety; here again, these worrying times are quite often temporary and resolved when the underlying issues are addressed.

Unfortunately, other kinds of anxiety can be more persistent, and for many, this can be so overwhelming that it makes everyday life difficult to manage. No one is immune from anxiety, although it can affect us all in different ways. Everyone will feel anxious about something at some time in their life, but it is not something you have to live with indefinitely or for every moment of every day. Anxiety can be something that occurs as a one-off episode but can also be something that persists for a longer period. For many it can be completely overwhelming, making it difficult to manage everyday life. Many sufferers can inflate and exaggerate situations that others consider normal events. For example, a person with claustrophobia may become anxious at the thought of leaving their home, as the idea of being in a car, a toilet cubicle or even a shop where the exits are unknown can be a terrifying prospect.

Where does anxiety come from?

Anxiety is not a punishment or harm from the brain; it is a protective response aimed at keeping you safe. It stems from the primal fight-or-flight instinct, which alerts the body to danger. Anxiety triggers the release of adrenaline, causing symptoms like rapid heartbeats, sweating, and hyperventilation. While physical danger is often absent, anxiety arises in response to psychological threats such as uncertainty, judgment, and vulnerability.

To simplify, anxiety can be likened to a smoke alarm. Like a smoke alarm detecting both real fire and burnt toast, anxiety responds to various stimuli. Its intention is positive, but its sensitivity depends on individual life experiences and interpretations.

Normal anxiety occurs in specific contexts, such as exams, doctor visits, or job interviews, and dissipates afterward. Longer-lasting anxiety may arise from challenging family situations, financial difficulties, or employment issues, which are often temporary and resolved when the underlying problems are addressed.


Problems arise when anxiety is triggered unexpectedly and seemingly randomly. Although the exact trigger may be unknown, anxiety is never random; it is typically associated with thoughts, feelings, smells, or sensory input linked to past trauma, which can date back to childhood.

Unaddressed past traumas can manifest as seemingly random anxiety attacks, leading to a general anxiety label. What may seem non-traumatic in adulthood could have been highly traumatic during childhood, and the fight-or-flight response becomes connected to memories and triggers from that period.

Symptoms of anxiety

The symptoms of anxiety which are caused by the spike of the stress hormone, adrenaline, are varied and numerous, but most people will experience some of the following:

  • Increased heart rate or sense of heart palpitations
  • Over breathing (hyperventilating)
  • Shaking
  • Muscle tension
  • Tension and tightness, or sense of compression, in the chest
  • Feeling hot
  • Feeling sweaty and clammy
  • Heaviness or numbness in the arms and legs
  • Tingling sensation in the arms and legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the face
  • Nausea
  • Flatulence
  • Need to use the toilet more often
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Hypervigilance
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Light-headedness

With the right help and support, it is possible for anyone to overcome an anxiety disorder entirely. It’s important to recognise that anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience to varying degrees throughout our lives. However, negative or traumatic past events often have a significant impact on our feelings of anxiety. It may be necessary to address these experiences in order to recondition our responses and move forward with a fresh perspective.

Creating a timeline can be a helpful tool in identifying the specific events and memories that require attention and processing. When anxiety strikes, practicing Grounding Techniques or listening to our Crisis2Calm message can provide effective coping mechanisms to transition from a state of crisis to calmness within minutes.

Living with anxiety can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. With this philosophy, we believe that everyone can successfully overcome their mental health issues if given the right help and support. Read more…

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