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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Everyone experiences it from time to time. It can feel overwhelming, but you can learn to manage it with the right support.

Topics on this page

What does anxiety feel like?

When you feel threatened, your body responds by producing a stress response to keep you safe. This response tells you to fight the threat, flee from it or freeze. These are normal reactions, but if your body reacts this way to situations that are not life threatening, it can cause anxiety.

Things that might make you feel anxious

You might feel anxious in different situations. For example, when:

  • giving a speech
  • driving a car
  • meeting your child’s teacher
  • looking over a cliff
  • thinking about climate change.

How much anxiety is normal?

Anxiety is normal and it can even be helpful. For example, if you are worried about health symptoms, feelings of anxiety can prompt you to visit your doctor.

You might feel anxious at different times, like when you are under pressure at work. Most of the time, your emotions will calm down after the stressful situation has passed. But if you feel anxious for no reason, your anxiety doesn’t go away or your anxiety affects your quality of life, you might have an anxiety disorder.

When does anxiety become an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is different from normal day-to-day worries or nervousness. When these feelings become overwhelming and affect your daily life, you might have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety can range from mild to severe. It’s important to understand that not all anxiety fits neatly into one category and that some people might experience a combination of different types of anxiety.

Types of anxiety disorders

There are different types of anxiety disorders, for example:

  • generalised anxiety disorder – when you constantly worry about things that do not represent a serious threat
  • panic disorder – when you have sudden and intense feelings of fear resulting in a panic attack (e.g. racing heart, breathing fast, sweating or thinking you are going to die)
  • phobia – when you have an intense fear of something and you try to avoid it (e.g. fear of heights, fear of spiders or fear of flying)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – when you repeat thoughts and behaviours over and over again to reduce feelings of anxiety (e.g. counting things or excessive handwashing)
  • social phobia (social anxiety disorder) – when you avoid being in social situations because you have intense fear and worry about being judged
  • health anxiety (somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder) – when you have intense fear that something is wrong with your body.

When to get help

If anxiety disrupts your daily life or you feel fearful most of the time, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. The earlier you seek help, the sooner you can feel better.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and you might need to fill in a detailed questionnaire.

It’s good to know there are many treatments available to manage anxiety. Your treatment options will depend on the type of anxiety you’re experiencing. Everyone is different, so it may take time to find the right treatment for you.

More information about anxiety

If you would like more general information about anxiety, visit:

Australian Psychological Society

Beyond Blue

Headspace

ReachOut

Logo: Liptember Foundation

Thanks to Liptember Foundation for supporting Jean Hailes to produce these pages on anxiety. Each year, the Liptember Campaign raises funds and awareness for women's mental health during the month of September.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at June 2022.

Last updated: 02 August 2022 | Last reviewed: 28 June 2022

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