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Key points

  • It’s normal to feel anxious sometimes, but if your feelings are ongoing and stop you from doing things you want to do, support may be needed.
  • Symptoms can include feeling restless or worried, having trouble concentrating or sleeping, dizziness or a racing heartbeat.
  • ‘Talking therapies’ can help provide the skills and practical techniques to deal with anxiety.

Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension or dread that bad things may happen, causing both physical and psychological effects. It’s not always a bad thing: it can be a very appropriate and useful reaction. As the body’s natural response to a threat or challenge, it can help you react quickly to a situation.

Life with HIV can at times involve worry and uncertainty. Anxiety can be a natural response to a new development in life when you are not familiar with it.

However, when anxiety becomes an ongoing issue that affects your quality of life or restricts your choices, psychological support may be needed. 

Symptoms of anxiety can include sweating, breathlessness, a racing heartbeat, agitation, nervousness and headache. Sometimes, people can think they are having a heart attack. People may worry constantly, feel strongly that they cannot cope, be irritable, weepy, unable to relax or to concentrate, and inclined to think that the worst will happen. Anxiety often occurs along with symptoms of depression, but can also happen by itself.

Anxiety can be related to specific situations, such as being in crowded spaces, or travelling by public transport, or having an assessment, or it can happen without a particular trigger.

If your anxiety is caused by specific problems – concerns about money, housing or taking HIV treatment, for example – getting practical advice about how to approach these difficulties may well provide a solution. There are techniques you can learn to help control anxiety and talking to family and friends can help.

Psychological therapies may also prove useful. Having some form of ‘talking therapy’, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, can help provide the skills and practical techniques to understand the origins of anxiety and to manage it better. Relaxation techniques and mindfulness are also used sometimes to help people with anxiety.

Anxiety can occur with depression, so it can be treated by antidepressants and other medication. It may be that you will be offered ‘talking therapy’, as this is now the preferred method of professional help for mild to moderate levels of anxiety and depression. But no one treatment is the right one for everyone, and your medical doctor should discuss the different options with you.

"If your anxiety is caused by specific problems getting practical advice about how to approach these difficulties may well provide a solution."

Massage, acupuncture, other complementary therapies and exercise can sometimes relieve some of the symptoms of anxiety. Cigarettes, stimulants (such as coffee) and depressants (such as alcohol) may seem to be helpful but usually increase the symptoms of anxiety, so it helps to avoid them. Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of sleep can also make a big difference to your ability to cope with stress.

Drugs such as benzodiazepines, including Valium, used to be widely prescribed for the treatment of long-term anxiety. Their use is now restricted because they are addictive and are less effective the longer they are used. However, they are still used to treat short-term periods of extreme anxiety and panic with little risk of addiction. Your GP can advise you about this sort of medication, although psychological therapy should generally prevent you needing medication. Remember, if your GP does prescribe these drugs, consider telling them about any HIV treatment you are on, or talk to someone at your HIV clinic, to avoid interactions between the drugs.

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