Understanding anxiety

Understand anxiety


Most of us feel worried or anxious every now and then, but when it becomes incessant and interferes with daily life, it’s time to seek professional help.

Words: Andrew Turner

Imagine feeling compelled to wash your hands for hours on end or not leaving your house for several years, your heart racing at the very thought of stepping outside. Such extreme scenarios are symptoms of different types of anxiety disorders and, sadly for some, are a constant reality.

What is anxiety?

National mental health organisation SANE Australia explains that common to all anxiety disorders is an anxiety so severe that it inhibits a person’s ability to carry out or enjoy everyday life1.

Anxiety is the most common type of mental disorder, affecting around 14 percent of Australians aged 16–85 (including one in five females aged 16–54), according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics2.

Common types of anxiety

The impact of anxiety on a person’s life depends on the type of disorder, explains SANE Australia’s Paul Morgan, but it can be debilitating and, in some cases, can impair their ability to function in social and occupational situations.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

This disorder can result in excessive worrying and feelings of anxiety over work matters, finances or health over several months or more3.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

People with OCD, a condition that affects more than 450,000 Australians, feel driven to carry out repetitive behaviours in an effort to minimise their anxiety4.

Social Phobia

Morgan says Social Phobia is intense, excessive worry about social situations “to the point where it can affect their capacity to work or mix with people at all”.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Someone with this disorder can experience the feelings of a traumatic event that they’ve either witnessed or been involved in “over and over later in life”, says Morgan.

Panic Disorder

This involves sudden, recurrent panic attacks5, where, as Morgan explains, the sufferer “can actually faint or experience very unpleasant, distressing symptoms like they’re having a heart attack”.

Specific Phobias

A person may experience intense anxiety when exposed to a specific object, such as a type of animal, or a specific situation, such as enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). These are also categorised as anxiety disorders6.

The road to recovery

The good news is that, with appropriate medical intervention, the symptoms associated with anxiety disorders can be managed, minimised and even eliminated.

The first step is an assessment and diagnosis by a GP, who may prescribe medication, especially where there is concurrent depression. The GP might then recommend psychotherapy, which involves regular visits with a psychologist, a psychiatrist or someone who is professionally trained to provide treatment for anxiety.

“... it’s about helping people to understand, so they think ‘oh, that’s why that’s happening; I get it now’,” says Morgan. “This then gives a foundation of understanding on which to build coping strategies for how the person feels now.” 

Need help?

SANE Helpline: 1800 18 SANE (7263) / sane.org

beyondblue info line: 1300 224 636 / beyondblue.org.au


  1. SANE Australia, ‘SANE Factsheet 12: Anxiety Disorders’, 2011, https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/anxiety-disorder
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Australian Social Trends’, March 2009, abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/lookup/4102.0Main+features30March%202009
  3. beyondblue.org.au
  4. SANE Australia, ‘SANE Factsheet 8: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’, 2010, sane.org/images/stories/information/factsheets/1007_info_8ocd.pdf
  5. beyondblue, ‘Factsheet 36: Panic Disorder’, beyondblue.org.au
  6. beyondblue, ‘Factsheet 38: Specific Phobias’, beyondblue.org.au
Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.