Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling of nervousness, apprehension, distress and fear that something bad is happening or about to happen. You can feel anxious without necessarily having an anxiety disorder.

What are you anxious about

Anxiety is part of being human.  Everyone experiences anxious feelings. You can be anxious about speaking in front of an audience, being late, flying in a large metal object 40,000 feet up in the sky, driving, your children learning to drive, your children coming home safely once they have their licence. You can be anxious that there will be another Global Financial Crisis sooner rather than later, that someone might hurt you, or might hurt someone you love and the list could go on and on…

Anxiety is related to fear but it is not the same thing as fear. Fear is a direct response to a specific event or object. Anxiety is the feeling of distress when you are uncertain about what might happen.

What happens when you are anxious

Signs of anxiety include physical changes in your body and changes in the way you think and act. Your heart starts to pump faster, blood pressure rises, breathing gets quicker and blood flows to your major muscles. You may feel sweaty, sick, a bit shaky or get things like a ‘tension’ headache. It becomes more difficult to concentrate, a feeling of fear spreads, and you start thinking that something bad might happen and you would like to run away – fast!

“I get the palpitations first and as soon as I sense those I notice my breathing gets faster. I hate this feeling. Then my palms are sweaty and I think ‘I can’t do this – I don’t want to do this’.  But I push myself and I walk out on stage and welcome the new parents to the school.  I keep thinking ‘Please don’t stuff it up, please let them think you are going to be a good teacher to their children.’ And then it is all over and I can calm down again, until next year!”
Jan, 52. Year 7 teacher.

“You would think I was about to commit some crime the way I carry on when I am late. I hate being late. As the clock gets close to the time to start work I start to feel it. I’m going to be late. My heart starts racing, ‘Why didn’t I get up earlier, I am an idiot’, then I can feel it in my stomach and I start to feel sick. ‘What if the boss notices and he calls me in and says that I am fired?’ I find myself predicting all these horrible things that could happen and then I just want to turn around, go home and call in sick. It’s crazy, particularly because I am hardly ever late!”
Jane, 30. Personal Assistant.

Causes of anxiety

Why do you feel anxiety when the ‘something bad’ hasn’t even happened?  In order to ensure our survival, the human body and mind are programmed to feel anxiety. This anxious response helps us to cope in fearful and stressful situations, to fight against threats (the fight response) or to run away from them (the flight response). This is why you get the racing heart, quicker breathing, the blood moving to your muscles. The trouble is that in today’s crazy, busy, stressful society, the anxious response gets turned on by things that may not threaten our lives such as too many demands on our time, the need for money or watching constant media reports about all that is wrong in the world.

Unhelpful or distorted thinking is likely to be one of the biggest causes of anxiety. There are many types of unhelpful ways of thinking such as:

  • Focusing on the negative
  • Jumping to conclusions (usually inaccurate)
  • Using words like “should”, “can’t”, “must”
  • Blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong
  • Thinking you are a “failure” or “hopeless”

This distorted thinking can lead to changes in brain chemistry, which can cause anxious feelings in your body. These physical feelings like sweaty palms, a racing heart and fast breathing are uncomfortable and can be scary and you tend to want to avoid them so you end up avoiding the very thing that caused the thoughts and feelings to happen in the first place. It becomes a cycle of fear.

Whether anxiety is inherited continues to be debated. It may be that being a ‘more anxious’ person runs in families. However, having anxiety is likely to be influenced by a combination of things. Growing up in a household with over protective and anxious caregivers can help to make you a more anxious person.

Some medications for asthma, high blood pressure and steroid medications like cortisone can increase feelings of anxiety. 

High levels of caffeine can also make you feel more anxious.  

Sometimes anxiety is connected to the kind of person you are and your lifestyle. Anxious feelings are found to be more common if you:

  • Are low in self-confidence
  • Have experienced bullying
  • Like everything in your life to be perfect
  • Have a lot of stress in your life
  • Have an unhealthy lifestyle – for e.g. if you eat an unhealthy diet or don’t exercise regularly
  • Have little or no social support
  • Don’t feel connected to the community around you
  • Are unhappy in the roles that you have like your job, your role in the family, your role as a partner

What protects you from anxiety

Understanding what causes you to feel anxious and then working out ways to help and protect yourself is a great first step. This table shows you some of the things that cause you anxiety and how you can use them to protect yourself from anxiety:

Causes of anxiety

What you can do to protect yourself from anxiety

Unhelpful thinking

Anxious feelings are often connected to the thought “What if… something bad happens?” What if:

  • I make a fool of myself
  • I can’t get it right
  • I hurt myself
  • I stuff it up
  • I get into trouble

It is important to understand the ways your thinking influences your anxiety, recognise your unhelpful ways of thinking and come up with challenges to these.

Unhealthy eating and not enough exercise

Having a healthy lifestyle including a nutritious diet and getting some physical activity into your day helps you to cope better with the physical feelings and thoughts that come with anxiety.

Something you are taking or drinking

Because some medications can make you more prone to anxiety it is a good idea to discuss with your doctor if this is a side effect of any medication you are taking. You could also think about the amount of coffee or caffeinated drinks you are having.  You may be sensitive to caffeine and once you go over a certain limit you start to notice you are more on edge. Drugs and alcohol are also contributors to more anxious feelings.

Lack of confidence

Being confident in yourself and your abilities helps to protect you when things don’t go right or you are under stress.

Lack of coping skills

If you have ways of coping when things get tough or tricky this can help you deal with your anxieties. If you are not sure how to cope with your anxieties it is a good idea to have a few things you can call on.  For more information on some tools to help with anxiety see our Toolkits.


Reducing stress can help give you space to cope with your anxious thoughts and feelings.

Lack of support

Having someone to turn to if you need help with anxieties makes them seem less overwhelming and helps put them into perspective.

Unclear roles and lack of a sense of purpose

Having roles that you feel good about and a sense of purpose and meaning help to make you feel more confident in yourself and your ability to handle your anxieties

The most important thing you can ever do when faced with anxiety is to push through and face the very things that are causing you to be apprehensive, nervous and fearful.  Avoiding situations in case something bad might happen may make you feel better in the short term, but will make anxiety even worse in the long term, and may even push you over into an anxiety disorder.

What to do

If you think you may have a more serious form of anxiety you may find it helpful to move to our section on anxiety disorders, or go to the self-assessment tools to help you decide.

If you would like to know more about anxiety at different times in your life click on one or more of the stages of life that are relevant to you. For each stage you will find information on the specific causes of anxiety and a link to a toolkit to give you strategies to help with anxiety.

Not sure? Use our quick self assessment tool to check.

About Jean Hailes

Jean Hailes is Australia’s leading and most trusted women’s health organisation. We believe in physical and emotional health and wellbeing in all its dimensions for all women in Australia throughout their lives.

We offer a range of free resources and easy to understand information on women’s health and wellbeing. Appointments at our specialist women’s health clinics can be made in person (East Melbourne and Clayton, VIC) or across Australia via our Telehealth consultation service.

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