Factsheet: Anxiety

This factsheet is available in a downloadable PDF here.

Table of Contents

Anxiety Disorders

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Complications of Anxiety Disorders

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Diagnosis of Anxiety Disorders

Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

Types of Anxiety Disorder


Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a feeling of unease. Everybody gets anxious when faced with a stressful situation, for example before an exam or an interview, or during a worrying time such as illness. It’s normal to feel anxious when you face something difficult or dangerous, and mild anxiety can be a positive and useful experience.

However, for one in 10 people in the UK, anxiety interferes with normal life. Excessive anxiety is often associated with other mental health problems, such as depression. Anxiety is only considered to be a mental health problem when it’s long lasting, severe and is interfering with every day activities.

Types of Anxiety Disorder


A phobia is a fear that is out of proportion to any real danger. If a phobia interferes with your ability to lead a normal life then it may be considered an anxiety disorder. Common phobias are fears of heights, spiders, mice, blood, injections or enclosed space (claustrophobia). 

Social phobia is also one of the more common, but complex, phobias. If you’re affected by this, meeting people causes anxiety, because you’re overly worried about what others think of you. One form of social phobia is severe anxiety about speaking or performing in public. It’s common to feel nervous in these situations, but people with social phobia find these activities impossible. 

Agoraphobia, another common phobia, is a fear of various places and situations, such as crowds or public places, and is often associated with panic disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD consists of recurring obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurring thoughts or images about specific things that trigger feelings of disgust. Common obsessions include fears around germs, dirt or violence. Compulsions are thoughts or actions that people feel they must do or repeat. A compulsion is usually a response to ease the anxiety of an obsession, such as repeatedly washing your hands to deal with an obsession about dirt.

Panic Disorder

If you have panic disorder, you live ‘in fear of fear’. You experience panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of anxiety that occur without warning and for no apparent reason. The symptoms of the anxiety (see Symptoms of anxiety disorders) can be very severe and may feel like a wave of panic. Panic attacks usually last five to 10 minutes but they can last longer.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can happen if you have or witness a traumatic event, such as a major accident or military combat. Anxiety, which may come and go, is one of the symptoms. Others include recurring thoughts, memories, images, dreams, or distressing ‘flashbacks’ of the trauma. It’s common to react with anxiety to a frightening experience – it’s only considered to be PTSD if the symptoms don’t go away. It may develop years after the traumatic event.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Anxiety can be a long-term disorder where you feel worried most of the time about things that might go wrong. This is called GAD. 

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

When you’re anxious, you may also have a range of physical symptoms. These happen because of your body’s so-called ‘fight or flight’ response, which is caused by the release of the stress hormone adrenaline. The symptoms can include:

  • Discomfort in your abdomen (tummy)
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Tightness or pain in your chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Needing to urinate more often than usual
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Shaking

You can also get psychological symptoms, which can include:

  • Sleeping difficulties (insomnia)
  • Feeling worried or uneasy all the time
  • Feeling tired
  • Being irritable or quick to get angry
  • Being unable to concentrate
  • A fear that you’re ‘going mad’
  • Feeling not in control of your actions, or detached from your surroundings (derealisation)


Complications of Anxiety Disorders

Sometimes when anxiety disorders occur with other conditions, such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, they can be associated with self-harm or suicide.


Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety may be a symptom of other mental health problems, such as depression or alcohol dependence. It can also be caused by substances such as LSD, ecstasy or caffeine, or by withdrawal from medicines taken long-term, such as tranquillisers.

Sometimes anxiety can be associated with a physical illness, such as thyroid disorder. For this reason you should see your GP in order to rule out a physical cause.

Your anxiety could be caused by some sort of stressful life event such as a bereavement, or if you witness something traumatic. In many cases this sort of anxiety will lessen after a few weeks. It would only be considered to be an anxiety disorder if the feelings were severe or long-lasting and were interfering with your every day life. 


Diagnosis of Anxiety Disorders

If you think your life is being affected by anxiety, visit your GP. He or she will want to identify any physical or psychiatric problems that may be causing the anxiety. Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. You may have a blood test if your GP suspects a thyroid disorder or some other physical illness. 

Your GP may refer you to a health professional for further help.


Treatment of Anxiety Disorders


You may be able to improve your symptoms by using relaxation techniques and exercise. Contacting other people who have anxiety disorders through charities and patient groups can be a good source of support and advice. Your GP may be able to advise you about self-help groups in your area.

Click here for more information about Self Help.


Self Help Books from Your GP and Local Library

Help Yourself to Health: Your GP or health professional can now recommend a self help book by giving you a book prescription. On it will be details of a suggested book title from a recommended list which you can borrow from your local ibrary. Your prescritpion might also include some useful websites. 

These books have been specifically chosen by health and information professionals to help people cope with difficult and emotional times in their lives. 

You can access these books through your GP by prescription of from City of Edinburgh Council libraries or from the Health in Mind Information Resource Centre. Please click here for a full list of books available as part of the Help Yourself to Health scheme plus a bit of information about each book.


Stress Control Classes

Stress Control is a 6-week evening class focusing on understanding what stress is, how it affects us and how we can manage it. At any one time, it is believed 1 in 5 of us suffer from stress and the sources of stress are widespread. During the course, we explore how stress affects how we think, how our body feels, what we do and our sleep pattern. The course is educational and each session is complimented with a summary handout and relaxation materials. 

The course is free to attend and places can be booked by contacting Health in Mind on 0131 225 8501 or [email protected]

Guided Self Help

Edinburgh GPs can now refer people to Guided Self Help. The service is run by trained Guided Self Help Workers. The Workers can introduce you to and supply you with self-help materials,  which you can work through on your own. These materials are designed to help you understand and address your problems independently. 

Most of the materials used are based on ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ (CBT) techniques. The CBT approach is structured, commonly using images, self instruction and other techniques to develop thinking and strategies to enable us to overcome and deal with situations which may currently contribute to our depression or anxiety. 

Workers can offer up to four 1 to 1 sessions (usually a few weeks apart) to review progress and support you to develop some of the self-help ideas further. 

To find out more about Guided Self Help please click here.


This involves talking through your problem with a counsellor who can help you focus on what you want to do and how you can achieve your goal. Research shows that counselling can help with some kinds of anxiety disorder, including panic disorder, social phobia, and GAD, especially in the short term.

Click here for more information on counselling.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of talking therapy, or psychotherapy, carried out by a specially trained therapist. CBT is based on the idea that negative thinking results in negative reactions. It involves assessing the reasoning behind your thinking and then gradually exposing you to the situation that causes anxiety in order to change your behaviour. CBT is often used to treat GAD and panic disorder.



Your GP may prescribe the following medicines.

Tranquillisers, such as benzodiazepine tablets, may help to relieve some short-term stress-related anxieties. However, they shouldn’t be taken for long periods because of the risk of addiction. For this reason they aren’t usually prescribed.

Buspirone is another type of medicine that can help relieve anxiety. It has different side-effects to benzodiazepines and it isn’t thought to be addictive.

Antidepressants can treat certain anxiety disorders such as GAD, social phobia, OCD and anxiety associated with depression.

Beta-blockers relieve many of the physical symptoms of anxiety such as palpitations and shaking, and may be helpful for some people. They don’t affect psychological symptoms, but some people find they can relax more if their physical symptoms are relieved.

Always ask your doctor for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.


Relaxation & Sleep

Relaxation training is a feature of some types of psychotherapy. Various types of relaxation therapy are available, which you might want to discuss with your doctor. You may find yoga, Tai Chi or other exercises helpful.

Click here for more information on Tips for Better Sleep.


Complementary Therapy

Although there are a wide variety of complementary therapies available for the treatment of anxiety, none have been conclusively shown to work and they may have side-effects. If you do choose to take a complementary medicine, you should always tell your GP or pharmacist, as it may interact with other medicines you’re taking.

Click here for more information on Complementary Therapies.

Related Services

Below are links to Services in the Edspace database that may be of interest:

External websites related to Anxiety

These web sites may be useful. Please note that we are not responsible for external sites; if you find any broken links or inappropriate content please report it to the site administrators using the feedback page.

  • Living life to the full
    An interactive life skills resource aimed to help you to respond to life challenges.
  • Saneline
    Saneline is a national mental health helpline providing emotional support and information. Anyone affected by mental illness can use this line, including carers and concerned friends or family. The helpline number is 0300 304 7000. The Helpline is open outside of normal office hours, from 4.30pm - 10.30pm pm every day of the year. The person who answers the phone will be empathetic and non-judgemental, providing a space for you to talk about any aspect of your mental health, or the mental health of someone you care about. You can get emotional support to address your individual experience, as well as help to explore options and action.
  • Action on Depression

    Action on Depression (formerly Depression Alliance Scotland) is the only national mental health charity in Scotland working for people affected by depression.


    We provide information and support for anyone with depression and their friends and family and campaign to raise awareness and understanding of depression in Scotland and to improve services for people with depression.

  • Anxiety UK
    Anxiety UK Helpline for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Phone: 08444 775 774 Hours: Mon - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm
  • No Panic

    No Panic aims to offer relief and rehabilitation to people suffering from anxiety disorders, for example Panic, Phobias and Obsessive/Complusive Disorders.

  • Support in mind Scotland
    Support in Mind Scotland works to improve the wellbeing and quality of life of people affected by serious mental illness. This includes those who are family members, carers and supporters.
  • Mood Juice
    Self help guides for Depression & Low Mood and Anger
  • Stress and Anxiety in Teenagers
    Interactive site on stress and anxiety from the Young Peoples Unit in Edinburgh

Phonelines Related to Anxiety

  • Breathing Space

    0800 83 85 87

    A free, confidential phone line you can call when you're feeling down. They also have an excellent website which has loads of information and a self-help toolkit.


    0845 767 8000

    A telephone helpline offering practical information, crisis care and emotional support to anybody affected by mental health problems. 0845 767 8000 (charged at local rates) 1pm to 11pm every day www.sane.org.uk

  • National Phobics Society

    0870 7700 456

    National Phobics Society Helpline for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Phone: 0870 7700 456 Hours: Mon - Fri 9.30am - 5pm

  • No Panic

    0808 808 0545

    No Panic Helps people who suffer from Panic Attacks, Phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and other related anxiety disorders including those people who are trying to give up Tranquillisers. Also provides info in ethnic languages. Phone: 0808 808 0545 Hours: 10-10pm - every day of the year - answer phone thereafter

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