Dry mouth, feeling sick, racing heart… most of us are familiar with a state of anxiety – although it is usually just a fleeting reaction to a stressful or ¬frightening situation.
But for many it’s a permanent state.
Growing numbers of us are finding our everyday worries and stresses escalating to levels of anxiety that can leave us panicked and fearful.
And it seems anxiety knows no boundaries when it comes to age or gender.
Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, says: “Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the UK – it’s thought that around one in 20 people will experience anxiety each year.
“Many people wait too long before seeing their GP and they discount social anxiety as just day-to-day stress.
“But it’s very important to seek help as soon as possible if you feel like your anxiety is interfering with your ability to do the things you normally would.”
So what’s behind this epidemic?
Experts believe the speed and pressures of modern-day life are partly to blame for the rise in tension so many of us feel.
Chartered psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin says: “There is a general trend that average is no longer good enough.
“All of us feel the need to be exceptional, whether that’s as parents or employees, and this spreads into leisure time because we ask who has run the longest and fastest, or who has been on the best holidays.
“Previously, as adolescents, we had only our peer group and Just 17 magazine to compare ourselves with.
“Now, young people are exposed to apparent perfection all the time on social media.
“They haven’t yet got the ability to critically analyse these images in order to understand that this isn’t real life and this is not a good benchmark to compare themselves with.
“As parents we often forget that our children pick up on even the subtlest messages.
“If you’re running around and tearing your hair out with anxiety then there’s a good chance your child will be anxious too, however much you tell them that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Anxiety has risen in all age groups with each facing its own pressures and fears.
Dr Rudkin says: “Children tend to be anxious about threats such as burglars, tsunamis and monsters.
“And as they move towards adolescence, beyond 10 years old, they can start to get more anxious about friends, being accepted and being popular.
“As they get into adolescence, anxieties develop around performance, being good enough and being special.
“Adults’ anxiety tends to be around physical safety as well as the demands of intense juggling of tasks each day, which leads to enormous stress which can then feed anxiety.
“Older adults fear physical illness and ¬loneliness. Fear tends to increase in old age and seemingly carefree adults can become really quite anxious as they feel more frail and vulnerable, and are often less supported.”
It’s the millennials – those born after 1980 – who are under more pressure than other age groups, says psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos.
In her new book Unfollow (£9.99, Littlebrown) she aims to help ¬twentysomethings to stop feeling as if they have to be perfect in absolutely everything they do.
“More than baby boomers, more than ¬generation X. It’s concerning, because why is it happening to this group in particular?
“Firstly we look at helicopter parenting, where kids are taught to go to their parents who will solve any problem they have.
“That much support becomes disempowering if people grow up to believe they shouldn’t have to tolerate any anxiety.
“That’s not real life. ¬Technological advances mean social media is part and parcel of their identity.
“So we begin to view ourselves in the third person and see ourselves as a product to be displayed, which means never really standing still.
“Also, they are broke. Millennials are the first generation when materialism is valued so much.
They are following the rich kids of Instagram but can’t afford to leave home.”
While women suffer anxiety more often than men, both genders experience and manage the problem in distinctly different ways.
Polls conducted on behalf of Mind in 2015 found that women were three times more likely than men to have cried because of anxiety in the last week and were twice as likely as men to feel better for having cried.
When it came to dealing with anxiety at work, 36% of women chose to hide in the toilets while only 15% of men did the same.
Half of women surveyed said they would eat more if they felt anxious compared to two-fifths of men.
Instead, 39% would drink alcohol compared to 29% of women.
If all this makes you feel anxious, the good news is that there are many treatments available to help combat the modern day scourge.
Dr Antonis Kousoulis, deputy director of the Mental Health Foundation, says: “There is an epidemic of anxiety, to an extent.
“And the facts and figures tell us it’s on the rise. But there is a range of help available.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy is the most common treatment.
“It’s a talking therapy and part of it helps you start to understand yourself better and why you might behave in a certain way.
“Self-management can be very important. Recovery can happen with guided self-help, including online options, and the NHS can help with that.
“Another treatment is mindfulness, which is derived from meditation but doesn’t have any religious connotations.
“It helps you to come to terms with your feelings and teaches you to live for the moment.
“Acupuncture might work for some but we do not have much evidence to support this.
“Medication is sometimes used too. There is no anxiety-specific drug which can mean being prescribed with antidepressants.
“They will help some people but they are not the first option because of the potential for side effects.”
Whatever the reasons are for anxiety, or the age or sex of the sufferer, the answer from mental health experts is uniformly clear: don’t suffer alone and seek help.
Dr Papadopoulos adds: “Anxiety can take away the flavour of life.
“If you experience it, please seek help to fix it. There’s no point saying, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine’ – you wouldn’t say that if you found a lump.
“Anxiety is something we can solve.”