Anxiety disorders: what you need to know

If you have an anxiety disorder you are not alone. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions in Australia. There are many effective treatments for anxiety, and the sooner you get help, the more likely you are to get better.

Anxiety disorders: what you need to know

Anxiety disorders: what you need to know

If you have an anxiety disorder you are not alone. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions in Australia. There are many effective treatments for anxiety, and the sooner you get help, the more likely you are to get better.


What is anxiety?

Feeling anxious is a common response that most of us will experience at different times in our lives. It usually happens when we feel under pressure or are in situations that are stressful. For some people, these anxious feelings happen without a particular reason, or don’t go away. This can make it difficult to cope with daily life.

People can experience different types of anxiety disorders.

  • Social anxiety disorder – this is related to feeling anxious about or avoiding social situations, or having fear of being embarassed, humiliated and rejected by others.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder – this is where feelings of anxiety can be triggered by many different factors rather than from one specific cause.
  • Specific phobias – this is when someone feels anxious about and avoids specific objects or situations eg, when fear of flying stops someone from travelling.
  • Panic disorder – this is when someone has recurring panic attacks for no obvious reason and feels anxious about having more panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear and discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. The person often feels that they have to do something urgently.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s important to seek help early so that you can get treatment and feel better. If left untreated, anxiety symptoms can worsen and persist across your lifetime.

Timeline showing that it takes people 8.2 years from the onset of symptoms to seek help for anxiety disorder.

It generally takes people 8.2 years from the onset of symptoms
to seek help for their anxiety disorder.

If you feel life is not worth living, get help immediately. 

  • Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety disorders don’t always happen suddenly – the symptoms are not always obvious and can appear slowly over time. The symptoms that people get with an anxiety disorder don’t go away and usually last 6 months or more. They may also impact quality of life and day-to-day tasks.

Anxiety does not feel the same for everyone. Symptoms can affect the body, mind and behaviour.

  • Body – ‘I find it difficult to sleep’, ‘I have panic attacks’, ‘I have fatigue’, ‘I feel tense’, ‘I have a racing heart’, 'My chest feels tight’
  • Mind – ‘I feel very worried’, ‘I have poor concentration’, ‘I feel irritable’
  • Behaviour – ‘I avoid situations that make me feel anxious’

A person’s experience of anxiety or an anxiety disorder can range from mild to severe. Speaking with a health professional can help you understand what level of anxiety you are experiencing.

Who can get an anxiety disorder?

Although anxiety can affect anyone at any stage of life, some people may be more likely to experience anxiety disorders than others.

People are more likely to get an anxiety disorder if:

  • they have a family history of anxiety or another mental health condition
  • they have a personality type which makes them more likely to have anxiety eg, shyness, or a very emotional character
  • they are experiencing or have previously experienced a stressful life event eg, work stress or death of a loved one
  • they have another mental condition such as depression
  • they have a chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes or thyroid problems
  • they use substances such as alcohol and cannabis.

Talking with your GP about anxiety

If you think you have an anxiety disorder, it’s best to speak to your GP as soon as you can. They can help you find ways to recover. It may take more than one appointment to work out the best treatment for you. Your GP can:

  • listen to your concerns
  • rule out any other health issues
  • discuss different types of treatment
  • suggest lifestyle changes
  • prescribe medicines (if necessary)
  • refer you to other health professionals who are trained to help with anxiety disorders, such as a psychologist.

In your appointment, it’s likely that your GP will ask you about:

  • your mood, thoughts and behaviours in the last few weeks, possibly using questionnaires to guide the assessment
  • any recent events in your life which may have affected your mood
  • physical symptoms such as sleep problems or changes in appetite
  • how your anxiety is affecting your ability to work and its impact on relationships with friends and family
  • your medical history and your family’s medical history.

When you see the GP, it’s important to be open and honest about the way you are feeling. Make the most of your appointment by asking questions that help you to understand more about anxiety disorders and the type of help available for you.

You can prepare for your appointment by making a list of questions to ask your GP. 

Use the Question Builder on the healthdirect website to guide you

Can anxiety disorders be treated?

There are effective psychological and medicine treatments for anxiety.

Psychological treatments

Anxiety_CardStack_CBT icon

Psychological treatments can help you manage your anxiety disorder by changing the way you think. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the psychological treatment that has been the most tested and works for most people. CBT is made up of exercises that teach you how to react to and think about situations that make you anxious.


Icon of a medicine capsule

Antidepressant medicines are effective treatments for anxiety disorders as well as depression. 

Antidepressants work by changing the balance of chemicals in the brain which are thought to play a role in anxiety disorders. These brain chemicals include serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. 

A ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor’ (SSRI) is a type of antidepressant medicine and is usually the first-choice when treating anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Download the beyondblue booklet for more information on possible treatments for anxiety disorders

Both CBT and SSRI medicines are effective in treating anxiety disorders: Studies have shown that about half of people receiving CBT or SSRIs get better.

Your GP can help you decide on the best treatment for you, taking into account which services are available, how much they cost, and most importantly, which treatments you would like to try.

Our NPS MedicineWise decision aid may help you.

CBT: what's involved?

CBT helps you change your patterns of thinking and the way you react to situations that make you feel anxious. You will:

  • use relaxation and breathing exercises to help you relax when you feel anxious
  • gradually face situations or things that make you feel anxious – the fear will get less over time
  • learn how to think and behave differently in stressful situations.

Watch this video from MIND for a good explanation of CBT

You can do CBT by meeting with a psychologist (this is sometimes called face-to-face treatment) or by using online CBT courses. Some of the online courses offer phone or email contact with therapists who can support you. Many of the online CBT courses are free.

Online CBT programCostOnline therapist$59No


For some people with anxiety disorders, prescription medicine may be a recommended treatment. Medicines can be taken instead of a psychological treatment or they can be used together.

Several prescription medicines are available to treat anxiety disorders. The preferred medicine is a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). It’s thought that SSRIs work by changing the amount of a chemical in your brain called serotonin. Serotonin is thought to affect mood. SSRIs are very effective in treating anxiety and are well tolerated by most people.

SSRIs are not addictive. They need to be taken daily and long term for at least 6–12 months. If antidepressants are stopped too early, anxiety symptoms may come back. SSRIs may not work straight away. It could take 4–6 weeks to start feeling better with an SSRI, although most people will start to feel better within 2–4 weeks.

You’ll usually start an SSRI at a low dose that is then gradually increased as your body gets used to the medicine. It’s not uncommon for anxiety symptoms to get worse before they get better.

You will need regular appointments with your GP to discuss how you’re getting on. It’s important to tell your GP if you experience side effects, but most side effects should improve over time. Common side effects of SSRIs include:

  • feeling agitated, or anxious
  • feeling or being sick
  • diarrhoea
  • headache
  • problems sleeping, or drowsiness
  • sexual problems.

It’s important to continue taking your medicine until you and your GP decide that it is appropriate to stop. When this happens, your dose should be reduced slowly to reduce any side effects that may occur when stopping the medicine.

No two people are alike, so if the SSRI that you have been prescribed doesn’t work you may be prescribed a different SSRI or another antidepressant such as a serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor (SNRI).

Read more about antidepressant medicines

Other medicines that can impact on mood and brain function are sometimes considered appropriate to treat anxiety disorders. These include benzodiazepines, for example diazepam. Benzodiazepines are highly addictive, so their use is not common and requires careful consideration and monitoring.  


There are ways you can ease your anxiety symptoms. These strategies can be used alone or alongside other treatments. However, self-help strategies may not be enough on their own for treating more severe cases of anxiety.

Icon illustrating swimming exercise

Exercise regularly

Regular physical activity that gets your heart pumping such as walking, swimming or cycling, may help to reduce anxiety symptoms. Exercises that support muscle, joint and bone strength such as weight training may also be helpful. Exercise may help to relieve anxiety by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain, increasing energy levels and helping with sleep.

Icon illustrating relaxation

Practice relaxation

Relaxation exercises may help reduce anxious thoughts and behaviours. There are many types of relaxation including breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, meditation and yoga. Most of these techniques can be practiced at home with little or no cost.

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Get enough sleep

Having an anxiety disorder may make it difficult to get a good sleep. Not getting enough sleep can also make anxiety symptoms worse. Establishing a healthy sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day may help to reduce anxiety symptoms.

Icon illustrating avoidance of caffeine

Avoid caffeine

Drinking too much caffeine can make anxiety symptoms worse and may also disrupt sleep. Limit the consumption of drinks such as coffee, tea and energy drinks which contain caffeine. Avoid caffeine completely if you find it makes your anxiety symptoms worse.

Icon illustrating avoidance of alcohol

Avoid alcohol

Some people use alcohol to help them cope with their anxiety, however, drinking alcohol will only make anxiety disorders worse. Only drinking alcohol in moderation or avoiding alcohol completely may help to reduce your symptoms of anxiety.

Find out more about any complementary medicines you are considering

There are many complementary medicines that are claimed to be effective for treating anxiety disorders. These include:

  • lavender oil
  • omega-3
  • St John’s wort
  • valerian
  • Bach Flower Remedies
  • passionflower
  • kava.

Although some studies have shown that these medicines may be effective in treating anxiety symptoms, there is not enough evidence to say whether most of these medicines are safe or effective for treating anxiety disorders.

Further support

Talking to others about your feelings can be hard when you have an anxiety disorder. However, it is important to remember that talking to friends, family and other health professionals can help you recover.

Support services available to help with anxiety are listed below. A number of these services may direct you to support groups for people with anxiety. Support groups can help you connect with others experiencing anxiety disorders. 

beyondblue1300 22 4636
24/7 confidential telephone service with a trained mental health professional and online forums for people with anxiety and depression
Lifeline13 11 14
24/7 support for those thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis
Headspace1800 650 890
Free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 with their mental health