Anxiety written in scrabble tiles

Understanding anxiety disorders

Read our Q&A and get up to speed on this commonly misunderstood condition

How many people in the world have an anxiety disorder?

In the UK more than 10 per cent of the population are likely to have an anxiety disorder that disrupts or disables their life at some point, according to Anxiety UK. The Psychiatric Morbidity Survey estimates that there are currently 3 million people in the UK with an anxiety disorder.

What is it? What do we know about it?

Anxiety is a normal biological response to stress. You have likely heard of ‘fight or flight’, in which the body produces adrenalin to help it respond to a major source of stress, which in the past could have been a predator.

Sometimes, however, the body responds in this way even when the stress is not major – or indeed if there is no discernable stress. If this continues to happen, you might have an anxiety disorder.

The physiological symptoms of anxiety include nausea, sweating and a racing heartbeat; psychological symptoms range from agitation and irritability to dread and detachment.

Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder diagnosed in the UK, and reflects the fact that anxiety can accompany a number of different conditions as well as exist on its own.

There are many other types of anxiety disorder, including generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder and phobias.

Phobias are a subtype of anxiety disorders and are a response to a particular object or situation. These include social phobias (sometimes called social anxiety disorder) and specific phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and agoraphobia (fear of leaving one’s home).

How is anxiety treated?

Because anxiety is a normal human response to stress, treatment does not focus on eradicating anxiety completely; from an evolutionary perspective this would make someone vulnerable. Treatment instead focuses on managing symptoms so that a person is healthy and able to function on a day-to-day basis, through one or more of the following:

  • therapy
  • medication
  • self-help.

What do scientists think is happening in the brain?

Research involving brain imaging has revealed that the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions such as fear as well as emotional memories) and the hippocampus (widely regarded as a major centre for memory) play a very big role in disorders of this type.

A piece of research published in 2013 by researchers at Stanford University suggested that a larger amygdala could be connected to higher anxiety in childhood. Other research has found that some patients with anxiety disorders that have suffered traumatic experiences have smaller than average hippocampi.

How likely am I to get it?

You will almost certainly experience anxiety at many points throughout your life. An anxiety disorder, however, can be triggered by a number of different factors, such as stress, chemical imbalances in the body and brain, and environmental instability. Some people do seem to have a genetic predisposition as well. Anxiety UK reports that over 10 per cent of the UK population are likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety-related condition at some point in their lives.

What organisations can help?

Anxiety UK

Helpline: 08444 775 774


Mind, the mental health charity

Infoline: 0300 123 3393

Text: 86463



Tel: 0800 1111


Tel: 0800 776 600

Lead image:

Practical Cures/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development