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What is Anxiety - unpacking the basics

What is Anxiety: Unpacking the Basics

Navigating Anxiety Disorders: A Comprehensive Guide for GPs on Effective Diagnosis and Referral

“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you”,

Dan Millman

Anxiety, characterised by excessive worry, fear, and a host of physical symptoms, is a prevalent concern within mental health in general practice. It represents a critical area of focus due to its impact on an individual’s well-being and functioning. According to the World Health Organization , an estimated 4% of the global population suffers from an anxiety disorder, making it the most common of all mental disorders. This statistic was further highlighted by a 2019 study which reported that approximately 301 million people worldwide were affected by these conditions1.

For healthcare professionals, particularly GPs and psychiatrists, a deep understanding of anxiety disorders is essential. Recognising the diagnosis of anxiety is not just about identifying the condition but also understanding its nuances which can significantly influence treatment approaches and patient outcomes. Anxiety is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis; it encompasses a spectrum of disorders each requiring a tailored approach to managing anxiety.

Furthermore, friends and family members of those suffering often play a pivotal role in the support system, and their understanding of how to effectively manage and assist in anxiety treatment options can markedly improve the care process. This comprehensive insight into anxiety helps facilitate better communication and support strategies, bridging the gap between clinical treatments and home care.

By enhancing our collective understanding and approach to managing anxiety, we can improve patient care and outcomes significantly, underscoring the importance of continual learning and application of best practices in healthcare settings.

Understanding anxiety

Anxiety is a complex and multifaceted response to perceived threats, deeply rooted in our biology and psychology2. It is fundamentally a natural human response to stress, designed to heighten alertness and prepare the body for potential challenges. However, this response can sometimes become disproportionate to the actual threat, leading to more severe anxiety disorders.

Biological basis:

At the core of the anxiety response mechanism is the amygdala, a key structure in the brain’s emotional processing system. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it triggers a cascade of biological reactions designed to protect us. This includes activating the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn leads to the release of adrenaline, enhancing alertness and readiness to respond to danger. This neural activity highlights the neurobiology of anxiety, where structures like the extended amygdala and the hypothalamus play critical roles. The interaction between the amygdala and other parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, is crucial in managing the emotional intensity associated with anxiety2.

Psychological manifestation:

Psychologically, anxiety serves an important protective function by capturing attention and stimulating a protective response. According to insights from Psychology Today, anxiety’s discomfort is meant to be a temporary state that prompts action. However, when anxiety is excessive or misaligned with the actual threat, it can disrupt everyday functioning and lead to maladaptive behaviours, like avoidance or substance misuse. This dysfunction is often exacerbated when the prefrontal cortex, which governs decision-making and rational thought, is overwhelmed by the negative emotional signals from an activated amygdala, as amplified by glutamate2.

For healthcare professionals and those supporting someone with anxiety, understanding both the psychological aspects of anxiety and its biological underpinnings is essential. This dual perspective helps in diagnosing anxiety correctly and providing interventions that address both the psychological and physiological aspects of anxiety.

How does anxiety manifest itself?

Anxiety can manifest through a wide spectrum of physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms, significantly impacting daily life. According to the NHS, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – one of the most common anxiety disorders – is diagnosed based on specific criteria that focus on the uncontrollable and excessive worry that disrupts daily activities3.

Common symptoms of anxiety:

Individuals with anxiety may experience a range of symptoms that affect them physically and mentally:

  • Physical symptoms: These include increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. Symptoms such as light headedness and changes in blood glucose levels are also noted, highlighting the extensive impact anxiety can have on the body4.
  • Emotional and behavioural symptoms: Feeling restless or on edge, irritability, and experiencing concentration difficulties are common. These symptoms are often persistent, occurring more days than not for at least six months – as outlined in the DSM-5 anxiety criteria5.

Types of anxiety disorders:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD): characterised by excessive worry about various events, associated with three or more symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, and sleep disturbances, causing significant distress or impairment in functioning.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: involves intense fear of social interactions and being judged or negatively evaluated by others.
  • Panic Disorder: marked by recurrent unexpected panic attacks and ongoing fears of further attacks.

The DSM-5-TR diagnostic criteria for GAD emphasise the duration and control of worry as diagnostic markers. Unlike DSM-5, the ICD-11 also offers guidance on diagnosing anxiety but differs slightly in its approach, focusing more on symptom clusters and cultural considerations5.

Understanding these manifestations is crucial for healthcare professionals to provide timely and effective interventions. For friends and family, simply recognising these signs is the first step towards supporting loved ones in seeking help.

Impact and prevalence of anxiety

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions worldwide, affecting a broad demographic with significant variations across gender lines. Research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research6 indicates that anxiety prevalence is generally higher in women than in men, with women more likely to experience a range of comorbid conditions such as bulimia nervosa and major depressive disorder. Interestingly, no gender differences were observed in the age of onset or the chronicity of the illness, yet the impact of anxiety on health appears more disabling in women, particularly among European American and Hispanic women.

This gender disparity highlights a crucial aspect of anxiety in women and underscores the need for gender-specific approaches in both diagnosis and treatment. The mental health burden caused by anxiety can permeate every aspect of life – personal, professional, and social. For individuals suffering from anxiety, this can mean diminished quality of life, reduced productivity at work, strained relationships, and decreased social engagement.

Understanding these impacts is essential to ensure practitioners can tailor interventions that address not only the symptoms, but also better understand the broader effects of anxiety on a patient’s life.

Challenges for general practitioners in diagnosing and managing patients with anxiety

General practitioners (GPs) play a crucial role in the initial recognition and management of anxiety disorders, yet they face significant challenges that can impact the effectiveness of their interventions.

Diagnosis challenges:

Diagnosing anxiety involves more than just identifying symptoms; it requires a comprehensive assessment including a detailed physical exam and a thorough personal history7. Anxiety often manifests in various forms and can mimic or coincide with other medical conditions, making it challenging to diagnose accurately without extensive investigation.


The complexity of anxiety symptoms can lead to high misdiagnosis rates. For instance, a study noted that in primary care settings, misdiagnosis rates reached 85% for panic disorder, 71% for generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and nearly 98% for social anxiety disorder8. These statistics highlight the difficulties GPs face in distinguishing anxiety from other conditions that exhibit similar symptoms, such as thyroid disorders or heart diseases, which can “look” like anxiety9.

Treatment challenges:

Managing chronic or severe anxiety cases often stretches beyond the scope of primary care challenges. While GPs are pivotal in the early stages of detection and treatment, the limitations in resources, time, and sometimes specialised training can hinder the provision of ongoing or intensive care required for severe cases. This underscores the importance of timely referrals to mental health specialists who can offer more targeted and comprehensive anxiety treatment in primary care settings.

General practitioners must navigate these diagnostic and treatment challenges with great care to ensure that patients receive the appropriate support and management strategies. Enhancing training and resources in primary care can improve outcomes for patients with anxiety, reinforcing the critical role of GPs in anxiety management.

Referring your patients with anxiety: when and why?

Identifying the appropriate time for referral to mental health specialists is critical for general practitioners managing patients with anxiety. There are several indicators that GPs should be aware of that suggest a referral to specialists like Orchestrate Health may be necessary.

Indicators for Referral:

  • Severity and persistence: when symptoms of anxiety are severe and persist despite initial primary care interventions.
  • Complexity: if the patient presents with complex symptoms that might involve multiple mental health disorders.
  • Lack of improvement: when there is little or no improvement in the patient’s condition after standard treatments or if the condition worsens.
  • Significant impact on life: if the anxiety significantly impairs the patient’s ability to function in daily life, professionally, socially or academically.

Benefits of specialised care:

Specialists like those at Orchestrate Health can offer more tailored and effective treatment options. The benefits of specialised care include:

  • Comprehensive assessment: detailed evaluations that consider all potential factors contributing to the patient’s anxiety.
  • Customised treatment plans: treatment strategies that are specifically designed to address the unique needs of each patient.
  • Multidisciplinary approach: access to a team of experts with different specialties, ensuring holistic care.

For GPs and other healthcare professionals, recognising these indicators and understanding the benefits of specialised care are essential. Early and appropriate referral to mental health specialists can significantly enhance outcomes for patients struggling with anxiety, providing them with the expert care needed to manage their condition effectively.

It is clear that anxiety is truly multifaceted in nature; from its biological basis to the complex psychological aspects that impact individuals differently and the symptoms that can make effective anxiety treatment challenging each underscore the importance of accurate diagnosis and management.

For healthcare professionals, it is crucial to recognise the signs of anxiety early and understand when these symptoms indicate a need for referral for anxiety care to specialists. By doing so, you can ensure that patients receive the most effective treatment options available, tailored to their specific needs. Specialists like those at Orchestrate Health are well equipped with the tools and expertise to provide comprehensive mental health support that might be beyond the scope of general practice.

Recognising when to extend beyond initial interventions and opting for specialised referral can mark a significant improvement in overall patient outcome.


1 – https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/anxiety-disorders

2 – https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/anxiety/the-biology-anxiety#:~:text=A%20number%20of%20neural%20structures,and%20orchestrating%20a%20behavioral%20response.

3- https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/feelings-and-symptoms/anxiety-disorder-signs/

4- https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/symptoms/

5- https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/generalized-anxiety-disorder/diagnosis/diagnosis/

6 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135672/

7- https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety-diagnosis#:~:text=Anxiety%20cannot%20be%20diagnosed%20with,and%20personal%20history%20are%20essential

8 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21977354/#:~:text=Misdiagnosis%20rates%20reached%2065.9%25%20for,97.8%25%20for%20social%20anxiety%20disorder.

9- https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/ss/slideshow-conditions-that-look-like-anxiety


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