Counselling: What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal part of life, but sometimes it can be so continuous or so intense that it stops us from functioning normally. For instance, it can affect our ability to cope at work or in personal relationships.

We feel anxious whenever we’re unsure of what the future will bring and fear that there are bad experiences ahead. In a sense, anxiety is essential, because it protects us from threats. The capacity to feel anxious evolved a very long time ago and we share it with many animals. In our evolutionary past threats were physical. Anxiety evolved to prime our bodies for action, ready to confront those threats or to evade them: the so-called “fight or flight” response. Thanks to this evolutionary heritage, whenever a threat is perceived hormones flood our bodies, our heart rate increases to pump oxygen to our muscles, and we become hyper-alert. Usually these responses eventually dissipate, and we return to normal.

But in modern societies we face many threats that are emotional or psychological rather than physical: for instance, the risk of embarrassment, of losing a job, or of a relationship breaking down. The fight or flight response doesn’t help us in these situations. It primes our bodies for physical action that never comes, and it raises our alertness, so we respond to ever more minor risks, helping to maintain our anxiety.

How anxiety affects you: When anxiety takes over it can cause a variety of effects on your body. These are shown in the picture below.

Anxiety can also affect you in a wide range of psychological ways. These include:

  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling on edge, hyper-alert to the smallest thing that feels wrong
  • Feeling like people are watching you
  • Wanting to run away
  • Feeling like everything is speeding up or slowing down around you
  • Thinking that you’re having a heart attack or some other kind of illness

It can help to recognise all of these for what they are: they are natural responses to anxiety. You can learn more by watching this short video from NHS Choices:

There are a variety of things you can do for yourself that can help to reduce anxiety’s effects on you. You can find out more about these by reading our self-help for anxiety blog which we'll be posting soon. When anxiety is so continuous or so intense that it’s stopping you from functioning normally, therapy can help. You can contact us by email at or by phone on 07376 010506.