In its purest, primal state, anxiety is an emotion that helps us stay alive and unharmed. It’s what our ancestors relied upon to remain wary of the predators. While we no longer have these kinds of threats in our daily lives anymore, anxiety still has practical uses. For example when we have anxiety about an important deadline, we are motivated to finish our work in time. Once the work is completed and passed, our anxiety should subside. This form of mild anxiety can happen on occasion, and is a routine part of our normal neurological functioning. But there are cases when anxiety becomes a mental illness.

When anxiety reaches a certain level of intensity and frequency, it and can be classified as a mental illness. Rather than fueling foresight, it becomes a source of suffering and distraction. Relentless anxiety makes it hard to fully enjoy life and is often a symptom of anxiety disorders – or pathological anxiety – which can be treated by psychotherapists.

Anxiety disorders can become so severe that the person’s life is almost dictated by their anxiety. Because we’re not designed to be in a state of high alert and anxiety all the time, this condition becomes physically and mentally draining and can lead to other disorders – both physical and mental. It can impact both your working life and your personal relationships with others. When we don’t understand our anxiety, or seek out treatment for it, it can be difficult for those around us to provide adequate support. The symptoms listed below can change how we come across to others, including friends, colleagues and partners.

Is anxiety a physical or mental disorder?

Anxiety is generally regarded as a mental disorder. This is in line with the fact that it’s most effectively treated long-term by psychological as opposed to biological treatment (such as drugs). That said, it causes both physical and psychological symptoms.

As with most illnesses – whether physical or mental – people with anxiety exhibit a range of physical and psychological symptoms. Long-term anxiety increases the risk of physical illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome or heart problems, as well as mental health conditions such as depression.

Experts usually explain anxiety and anxiety disorders using the biopsychosocial model. The biopsychosocial model outlines multiple, inter-related causes of pathological anxiety. These can be roughly categorised into three main groups:

  • Biological causes (the body’s physiological, adaptive responses to fear)
  • Psychological causes
  • Environmental or social causes

How to differentiate between ordinary anxiety and an anxiety disorder

When someone finds they’re feeling anxious all or most of the time, this becomes a mental health problem. What distinguishes normal levels of anxiety from a more serious condition, is whether or not the anxiety experienced prevents us from doing everyday activities, or significantly alters our behaviours in a negative way.

There are events which recur throughout a person’s life that can be a source of anxiety. Public speaking is a common example, but feelings of anxiety can also motivates us to prepare and practice our speeches. In a similar vein, performers often claim to perform the best they ever had due to adrenaline. Driving in heavy traffic is another common source of anxiety, but it helps keep us alert and cautious to avoid accidents. If we remain in this state once back in the safety of our home, we may find it difficult to relax, sleep or go about normal activities such as chores.

Symptoms of anxiety as a mental disorder

Here are a few symptoms which may indicate an anxiety disorder as opposed to mild anxiety.

To observe in others:

  • Person appears restless or on edge
  • Persistent fidgeting
  • Switching from task to task, occasionally not seeing tasks through to completion
  • Irritability
  • Panic attacks
  • Appearing tired or drained
  • Reduced confidence


To observe yourself:

  • Persistent restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
  • Becoming easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or experiencing mind blanks
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep
  • Irritable mood
  • Development of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Increased heart rate, sweaty palms


Anxiety is a relatively common mental health issue. But when properly treated, people can overcome their anxiety and return to their normal way of life. Find out more about our therapy for anxiety here.