Anxiety, Panic and Phobias: key facts
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What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the feeling of fear that we get when faced with
threatening or difficult situations. It can help us to avoid
danger. It makes us more alert and gives us the energy to
deal with problems. But if the anxiety is too strong or is
there all the time, then it can be a real problem. Anxiety
disorders affect about one in 10 people.
What is panic?
A sudden surge of intense anxiety that can come out of
What is a phobia?
A phobia is a fear of a situation, or object,
that are not dangerous, and which most people do not find
What causes anxiety, panic and phobias?
- Genes: Some of us seem to be born more anxious
than others. This tendency might be inherited through our
- Circumstances: Sometimes it is obvious
what is making you anxious. When the problem disappears, so does
the anxiety. However, some things are so threatening - like car
crashes, train crashes or fires - that the anxiety can go on long
after the event. You can feel nervous and anxious for months or
years after the event, even if you were physically unharmed. This
is called post-traumatic stress
- Drugs: Street drugs like amphetamines, LSD or
ecstasy can all make you anxious – even too caffeine in coffee
can do it.
- Life experience: Bad experiences in the past,
big changes in life in the present - pregnancy, changing job,
becoming unemployed or moving house.
What does anxiety feel like?
- Your Mind: feeling worried all the time,
tired, being irritable, sleeping badly and not being able to
- Your Body: racing heartbeat, sweating, muscle
tension and pains, shaking, breathing heavily, dizziness,
faintness, indigestion and diarrhoea.
What does panic feel like?
A sudden, overwhelming sense of fear and loss
of control. You breathe quickly, feel your heart pounding, sweat,
and may feel that you are going to die. You get out of the
situation as quickly as you can.
What does a phobia feel like?
You get strong feelings of anxiety in the
particular situations that frighten you. So if you have a phobia of
dogs, you feel anxious when there are dogs around, but feel OK at
other times. You tend to avoid the situations that make you anxious
- this makes the phobia worse as time goes on. Your life can
become dominated by your fear and the precautions you take to
avoid such situations. You will usually realise that there is no
real danger and may even feel silly about your phobia, but you
can't control it.
... and you may also feel
Anxiety and panic are often lead
to depression, when you feel
down, lose your appetite and see the future as bleak and
What help is available?
You can learn to relax with a self-help group
or professionals or teach yourself with books, CDs and DVDs
(see our main leaflet), based on
cognitive therapy. Regular practice will help you to relax more
easily and more quickly.
Talking it through. You may not want to
talk to family members about your phobia or feelings of anxiety -
but it can help. Ask a friend or relative whom you trust and
you respect, and who is a good listener. They have had the same
problem, or know someone else who has.
Self-help groups. Talking to people with
similar problems can be good because they understand what you are
going through. They may be able to suggest ways of
There is a more intensive talking treatment which can help
you to understand and control your anxiety. The treatment can take
place in groups or individually. Most groups are based on cognitive behavioural therapy and
include the benzodiazepines,
like diazepam and most sleeping tablets. They are very effective,
but can be addictive, even after just a couple of weeks.
Ideally, they should not be taken for longer than 2 weeks.
usually take two to four weeks to make a difference. They can cause
nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth and constipation.
can be used in low doses to control the physical shaking of
This is an abridged version of our main
leaflet on 'Anxiety, Panic and
Produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Public Education
Editorial Board, chaired by Dr Philip Timms.
This leaflet is made available through the generosity
of the Charitable Monies Allocation Committee of the mental health
charity St Andrew's, Northampton
© November 2012. Due for review:
November 2014. Royal College of Psychiatrists. You can link
to, download, print, photocopy and distribute this leaflet free of
charge. But you must not change it or repost it on a
Charity Registration number (England and Wales) 228636
and in Scotland SC038369.