What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that doesn’t go away. It’s the main symptom of a range of conditions, which include general anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, phobias and social anxiety.

Anxiety affects around one in ten older people. It may be something you’ve experienced throughout your life or, more unusually, something you’re experiencing for the first time. If this is the case, it may be a symptom of another illness. Speak to your GP if you have any concerns.

What causes anxiety?

There are many reasons why you might be affected. Some people are naturally anxious. You may have inherited it in your genes and if a close family member has an anxiety disorder, there’s a chance you will too. If you have a learning disability, you may be more susceptible.

Some of the life changes that may happen as you get older can increase your feelings of anxiety. It can also be the result of alcohol or drug misuse. Even caffeine or too much sugar can make some people feel more anxious.

Some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety overlap and it’s not unusual to have both.

Anxiety and dementia

Anxiety can be part of dementia and may be accompanied by changes in behaviour such as agitation, not wanting to be left alone, pacing, feeling restless and fidgeting. If you’re worried, speak to your GP or contact the Alzheimer's Society for advice.

How you might feel

Anxiety can cause both physical and psychological symptoms, which vary from person to person.

You may feel some of the following:

  • worried all the time
  • tired
  • unable to concentrate
  • irritable
  • unable to sleep
  • depressed.

You may also experience physical sensations such as:

  • fast or irregular heartbeats (palpitations)
  • feeling tense and uptight
  • sweating
  • pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • trembling
  • dizziness
  • a feeling of nausea
  • your stomach churning.

These physical sensations happen because your body senses fear and prepares itself for an emergency, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

When to seek help

Anxiety can become a mental health problem if you can’t control your feelings and you start to withdraw from people or avoid the things that make you feel anxious. If your symptoms have been going on for several weeks or you feel they’re taking over your life, contact your GP.

Your GP can check your general health to make sure there isn’t a physical cause for your anxiety. You may be asked to complete a questionnaire about when you feel nervous, anxious, or worried. They should then discuss treatment options with you, such as talking therapies, relaxation therapy, medication or a combination of these. If you have another problem, such as depression or alcohol misuse, you might need treatment for that first.

If going to the doctor makes you feel anxious, ask for a telephone appointment or find out if they do home visits. You can also refer yourself for some psychological therapies if you prefer.

If you need to speak to someone urgently, contact NHS 111 or Samaritans (116 123).

How is anxiety treated?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. This is a talking therapy and it can help you understand how the way you think affects your anxiety and sometimes causes it. You’ll learn strategies to help you cope when you feel anxious. You may be offered CBT in a group or one-to-one. You may also be offered online CBT or self-help books.

NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services are open to all adults and you don’t need a referral. They offer talking therapies to help with anxiety and depression. You can find contact details on the NHS website.

Private therapy

Waiting lists for NHS talking therapies can be long and you may only be offered a short course of treatment. If you can, you might prefer to organise private therapy. Costs vary so it’s worth looking around.

Ask your GP for recommendations or look for an accredited therapist at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or on the CBT register. You could also contact charities that offer support, such as Anxiety UK and No Panic.

Relaxation therapy

Relaxation therapy involves meeting a trained therapist who will teach you how to relax your muscles in a particular way when you’re in situations that make you anxious.

Medication

If psychological therapy doesn’t work or your symptoms are severe, you may be offered medication. Some can be taken long term, such as certain anti-depressants. However, some medications like sedatives can be addictive and should only be used for a short time. If you have any concerns, speak to your GP or pharmacist.

Some medications can cause anxiety. If you’re already on medication, ask your GP or pharmacist for a medication use review. See managing your medication for more information.

Ways to help yourself

There are many things you can do to help yourself, whether or not you’re getting help elsewhere – our webpage older adults and mental health has suggestions for general ways to look after yourself.

You could also try:

  • writing things down - keeping a diary may help you to spot patterns and identify the things that cause you to feel anxious so you can manage your anxiety better. You could also record the things that make you feel happy and coping strategies that have worked for you. 
  • self-help therapies - these include things like guided self-help, where you work through a workbook, or free online courses such as NHS Moodzone, Living life to the full or Every Mind Matters. You can also find useful apps and tools on the NHS website.
  • allocating ‘worry time’ – instead of worrying all the time, set aside about 10 to 15 minutes a day. If you start to worry at other times, tell yourself to wait. During your worry time, don’t try to come up with solutions – just worry. Time yourself and don’t let the worrying go on when the time is up.
  • confronting your fears – make a list of situations that you avoid and rank them in order of difficulty. Work out small steps to help yourself tackle them, starting with the one that causes you least anxiety, and keep confronting the situation. Your confidence will grow the more you do this.

How to help someone you're worried about

If you’re concerned about somebody who seems to be suffering from anxiety, there are some simple things you can do to help.

  • Talk to the person and find out how they feel.
  • Ask them how you can help. For example, you might be able to help them with breathing exercises. Resist the temptation to give advice.
  • Reassure them that you’re there if they need you.
  • Learn about anxiety and the treatments available. You could help them to research support organisations or self-help therapies.
  • Anxiety is different for everyone. Learn to recognise the signs and find out what triggers their anxiety. Help them to stay positive and create coping strategies.
  • If they suffer from panic attacks, find out what to do when this happens.
  • Be patient and support them to do things they might avoid.
  • Don’t put them under pressure. Take things slowly and at a pace that suits them.
  • Don’t let anxiety become the main focus of your relationship. Encourage them to do things they enjoy. You may want to find something you can do together, such as exercise, an art class or gardening.

If their anxiety is affecting their daily life, encourage them to see their GP or talk to a therapist. You could help by arranging appointments or offering to go with them. Help them plan what to say by using our medical appointment planner.

Take care of yourself as well

It can be difficult to care for someone who suffers from anxiety, no matter how understanding you are. It’s important to look after yourself as well. Talk to your GP if you’re finding it stressful and try not to take on too much.

Talking to others who are in a similar situation can be helpful. Carers UK has an online forum and may be able to put you in touch with local support groups. Organisations such as Anxiety UK or No Panic can also offer advice and support.

Next steps

Read our guide Managing anxiety for more information about the support available and ways you can help yourself.

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