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Staff Counselling Centre


What is anxiety?

 Anxiety is a normal emotional and physiological response to a perceived threat – in our physical or psychological environment. Symptoms can range from mild uneasiness and worry, to severe panic.

 We experience anxiety in different ways:    


Fear, nervousness, not being able to concentrate/feeling distracted, feeling overwhelmed


Breathing fast, trembling, dry mouth, heart racing, and stomach churning


Frightening and negative thoughts e.g. I’m going to fail/ make a fool of myself/lose control


It is not unusual to feel anxious when in a stressful situation, and it can be useful to know that anxiety can serve a protective as well as a motivational function.  Anxiety alerts us to situations that might be harmful or difficult in some way.  It can also prepare us to face that difficulty or challenge – stimulating our physiological systems to be alert and ready to face whatever the perceived threat or difficulty.

Sometimes anxiety becomes too severe to be helpful and this can be debilitating.  Often sustained anxiety is focused on specific situations or triggers which in turn can lead to avoidance of those triggers. Avoidance can then become a problem in itself – for example, feeling social anxiety, avoiding social situations and becoming increasingly isolated and lonely.  Avoidance can also lead to an increasing need to avoid distressing stimuli.


Other symptoms of prolonged anxiety are:

  • Sleep disturbance.
  • Loss of concentration and an impact on performance at work.
  • Comfort eating or loss of appetite.
  • Use of substances or alcohol to reduce the feelings of anxiety.
  • Fatigue and tiredness.
  • Low mood, agitation and irritability (these can also be symptoms of depression).
  • Time off from work.
  • Increasing isolation and withdrawal as avoidance behaviours become established.


How you can help yourself

Identify factors that might be contributing to your anxiety

For example:

  • If you are feeling overwhelmed, consider saying “no” to things which are not a priority
  • Reflect on your expectations – of yourself and of others.  It is useful to ask yourself
  • Whether these expectations are realistic or achievable and to moderate them where necessary.
  • Give yourself time for reflection – a pause to think rather than having to rush all the time: be reactive rather than responsive.
  • Identify ways in which you might have started to avoid the things that cause you to feel anxious.  Avoidance is likely to increase the anxiety you experience rather than decrease it (see next section)


Reducing your anxiety

 It is helpful to identify what pace of change feels right for you rather than pushing yourself to manage everything all at once. 

  • Talk to close friends and/or family about your anxiety – not necessarily to find a solution, but so that you don’t have to hide how you are feeling
  • Talk to a trusted colleague or a supervisor or manager if you are having difficulties at work
  • Try to set realistic goals and expectations for overcoming the difficulties your anxiety presents.  For example, you might not be able to get rid of your anxiety completely, but you can learn how to tolerate it and by doing so, to reduce it
  • Try to tackle your avoidance: You might find that you have started to avoid certain situations that give rise to your anxiety. Usually anxiety can be reduced over time by gradually facing the thing that is making us feel threatened. This is called ‘exposure’ or ‘desensitisation’. The idea is that you gradually face the cause of your anxiety, at a pace that feels manageable, increasing your exposure to the anxiety a little at a time, while you learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that this provokes


Further information can be found here:

Situational Exposure Information Sheet (


While you are exploring ways of reducing your anxiety it can be very helpful to look after yourself more generally. This places you in the best position possible to manage the uncomfortable feelings that anxiety gives rise to. 

For example:

  • Looking after your physical health by eating well; exercising regularly - a 20 min brisk walk for example
  • Establish a regular routine to support healthy sleep (see our sleep hygiene leaflet)
  • Engage in social activities and/or activities you enjoy


Experiment with more objective ways of thinking. 

For example:



“I’ll make a fool of myself in front of everyone.”


“Other people probably also feel anxious and most people won’t notice how I am feeling.”


“I’m going to mess this up.”


“I will do my best – I don’t need to win a medal for this.”


Hold a physical focus to enable you to ignore the negative thoughts

Some people find it more effective to disengage from their frightening thoughts by locating where in their body they experience their anxiety and tension the most.  It can be helpful to notice the physical sensations of anxiety without trying to reduce or resolve it.  This strategy is about observing and experiencing how you are feeling without judgement or intention.  You will need to practise some regular steady breathing while you do this: breathing in for 5 counts, and breathing out for 5 counts. Maintaining that awareness and steering your awareness back to the physical experience rather than your thoughts can feel more manageable.


Learn to relax

Relaxation and breathing exercises can help you to control these symptoms.  You can learn how your body feels when it is relaxed if you tense different parts of your body (e.g. arms, hands, legs, neck, shoulders, and forehead) for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax.  Try to keep your breathing steady and regular by breathing in to a count of 3 and matching your out-breath to a count of 3.  This can be a useful focus to hold when you are feeling anxious or panicky.

It is worth practising relaxation exercises – even when you do not feel anxious – this will enable you to regulate some of your physical responses to increased anxiety. 

Meditation 1: Mindfulness of body and breath - YouTube


Negative thoughts

Anxious thoughts can distort your perception of how threatening a situation is, and impact your perception of whether you can cope with the anxiety.  It can be helpful to evaluate the situation more realistically when you feel calmer.

Useful questions to ask yourself might be:


Am I judging myself harshly?

Are you focusing on failures and overlooking your successes?  Have you been faced with similar situations in the past – how did you manage? 

Am I catastrophising?

Are you seeing things in all-or-nothing terms?  It can be helpful to think about a worst case scenario and how you might cope with this - developing a Plan B.

Am I worrying about things that haven’t happened yet?

Are you thinking too far ahead?  If so you might be trying to manage situations that haven’t yet or may never happen.

Am I comparing myself to others?

Are you assuming that everyone else is doing fine, when you don’t actually know how others are feeling or managing? 

Am I trying to manage things that are not in my control?

It can be useful to identify what lies within your sphere of control and what does not lie within your power to change.


Panic Attacks

A panic attack is an intense experience of anxiety.  It is your body’s response, to a stressful situation. You may experience a sense of dread and physical symptoms such as feeling your breathing is constricted; dizziness; chest pains; trembling, and sweating.  You might fear that you are losing control, or worry that there might be something physically wrong with you.  Although panic attacks can be very frightening, they are not harmful and will pass.

If you have a panic attack:

  • Remember that a panic attack will pass eventually and is not dangerous.
  • Try to allow your feelings to emerge; they will gradually become less intense.
  • Stop what you are doing and allow yourself to slow down and pause.  Breathe steadily and gently and try to focus on your out-breath rather than trying to breathe in.
  • Instead of focusing on your frightening thoughts, focus on the here and now: notice the things around you - observe their shape, colour, sounds...
  • Alternatively hold your attention on the physical area of your body in which you experience anxiety and notice how that is feeling.
  • As your panic subsides, take a big sigh, stretch out, and then flop and relax.
  • Continue to focus on your breathing and possibly take some gentle exercise e.g. go for a stroll.

It can be helpful to keep a log of panic attacks (e.g. to note what happens beforehand, when and where each happens, your thoughts) as this may help identify possible triggers


Where to get help

If the anxiety problems do not start to improve despite trying the ideas above, or if your fears are persistent and difficult to control and is stopping you from living a normal life, or you are avoiding important activities:

  • Speak to a close friend or family member, colleague, supervisor or line manager.
  • Talk to your GP if you are worried about the physical symptoms of anxiety or you think you might need some medication.
  • Speak to someone at the University Counselling Centre where counsellors can help you understand and deal with your anxiety.


Staff Counselling Centre:  



Tel:                     01223 762160