Blog post

Understanding anxiety - what causes it and what strategies can you use to cope?

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Joanna Baker, Therapist and Psychoeducation Coordinator at the University of Derby, shares insight into what anxiety is and what can be done to manage it.

By Joanna Baker - 4 September 2019

We all need to experience some degree of anxiety at times. It would be unnatural not to feel any of its symptoms, such as racing pulse, dry mouth, sweatiness and shallow breathing, just before a presentation or exam, for instance, as it helps get us motivated to act. But excessive anxiety causes problems. It is true that a percentage of our experience of anxiety is down to genes. Between 30 to 40 per cent of it, no less, is passed down as a family trait, but that just explains how stressful different people find different situations to be and how likely they are to respond with anxiety when they feel they are under threat.

Excessive anxiety may develop gradually, starting, perhaps, with loneliness after the loss of a loved one; being too shy to make new friends when moving somewhere new; experiencing unwelcome life changes because of chronic illness and pain; or feeling loaded down with too much responsibility - all cases of unmet emotional needs. But anxiety is not something all-powerful and inexplicable. It can be managed very easily, when you know how.

What is anxiety?

There are three elements to anxiety:

When people worry excessively it is, in essence, because important emotional needs, such as for safety, connection or status, are not being met.

For some people, anxiety can develop suddenly, after they are caught up in some tragic disaster, such as a fire or a crash, or are the victims of violence, and their lives become ruled by fear - this is known as post-traumatic stress. Anxiety may also take the form of obsessions, compulsions, phobias or a nagging feeling of foreboding - all of which are attempts to ward off a sense of threat.

Yet, as we know, some people face such circumstances without becoming overly anxious, while others end up almost crippled by anxiety. How we explain the negative events that happen to us, our narrative if you like, has a considerable bearing on whether we are likely to suffer from excessive anxiety.

What causes the development of anxiety?

Three particular types of thinking that are connected with the development of anxiety and its close partner, depression are:

  1. How personally people take events (they think that they didn't get the job because they weren't good enough, rather than because the competition was particularly stiff)
  2. How pervasive they think the effects will be (if they lose their job, they think everything in their world is going wrong, even though they have their health and good friends etc)
  3. How permanent they think the issue is (they will never get another job like that one etc)

People who suffer badly from anxiety also tend to have a lot of negative thoughts running through their minds that they don't even notice ('I'll never cope', 'it's going to be awful', 'no one likes me') and commonly catastrophise ('I'm going to be late. I'll get kicked off my course'). Changing negative self-talk and challenging catastrophic thinking help lower stress levels.

Another major cause of troublesome anxiety is negative over-imagination. Anxious people tend to spend a lot of time worrying "what if?" coming up with a whole variety of dreadful outcomes for themselves or their loved ones. This keeps them in a constant state of high emotional arousal and can take the extreme forms of phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Learning to use the imagination positively - by calmly rehearsing mentally tried and tested techniques (such as deep breathing and distracting thoughts) for dealing with feared or worrisome situations - is very effective. Calming ourselves down, when anxious, is extremely important because high emotional arousal makes us stupid. We literally can't think straight and that makes the situation worse.

You are not an anxious person. You are a person who can be hit by anxiety and can learn to handle it. The more you do something successfully in stressful situations, the more your brain learns to expect to cope. In effect, then, you can learn to outwit your own genes.

So, what can help?

There is a clear link between wellbeing and academic success. To help students make the most of their time at University we provide a wide range of face-to-face, telephone and online support.

Student Wellbeing Centre (Derby)

T: 01332 593000 (extension 3000)

Student Wellbeing (Buxton/Leek/Chesterfield)

T: 01298 330414 (extension 4414)

Self-help resources

There are also lots of great self-help resources out there, including:

For further information contact the press office at

About the author

Joanna Baker

Joanna Baker is a Therapist for the University of Derby's Psychological Wellbeing Service.