Uncertain times: Anxiety in the UK and how to tackle it

Anxiety has become one of the most talked about topics in mental health. While it’s good that anxiety is getting more attention, many myths and confusion surround the topic.

The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has chosen anxiety as our Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 theme to provide a better understanding of what anxiety is, when it becomes a concern, and what we can do to help ourselves and each other when anxiety starts to become a problem.

This briefing looks at what our research has uncovered: the prevalence and rates of anxiety amongst different groups of people, and the current key drivers and risk factors for anxiety. It then considers the main ways of coping with anxiety and provides recommendations to governments across the UK for preventing anxiety.

Key points
  • Feelings of anxiety are a natural and important human response to stress or perceived danger. They are feelings of unease, worry, or apprehension. Anxiety is a part of our body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response that helps us react quickly to potential threats.
  • Anxiety can become problematic if it is persistent over a long period of time, is overwhelming, or stops us from doing things we want or need to do.
  • Anxiety levels amongst the population increased throughout the pandemic and have not yet dropped to pre-pandemic levels.i
  • In March 2023, the Mental Health Foundation worked with Opinium to conduct an online survey of 6,000 UK adults aged 18+ to look at anxiety in the UK population, its causes, and popular coping mechanisms.
  • Nearly three-quarters of the population (73%) had felt anxious at least sometimes in the previous two weeks, with one in five people (20%) anxious most or all of the time.
  • Some groups of people are more likely to be affected by anxiety than others. Nearly all young people (18 to 24 years) in our research (86%) had felt anxious in the previous two weeks. For over half (58%), this had stopped them undertaking day-to-day activities. Other groups more likely to report feeling anxious were:
    • Single parents (89%)
    • LGBTQ+ people (89%)
    • Carers (84%)
    • 18 to 34-year-olds (86%)
    • People from a minority ethnic community (84%)
    • People with a long-term physical health condition (LTC) (82%)
  • Everyone’s experiences of anxiety are different, and the causes of anxiety can be complicated, but there are circumstances more likely to give rise to anxiety. These can include negative life events, social isolation, stress relating to work/education, physical and/or mental health problems, and social and societal pressures, including those experienced online.
  • The cost-of-living crisis was clearly top of mind; the most commonly reported cause of anxiety in our research was being able to afford to pay bills. Those aged 35 to 64 years old were most anxious about finances.
  • Stigma and shame play a part in how people deal with their anxiety. Nearly half of the people in our research (45%) were keeping their anxiety secret.
  • Nearly a third (30%) said they were not coping well with their anxiety, with higher levels noted amongst:
    • Unemployed people (43%)
    • LGBTQ+ people (41%)
    • Students (40%)
  • People in our survey are using a variety of coping mechanisms to manage their anxiety. Some of the more popular choices can be healthy such as exercise, sleeping more, and connecting with friends and family. However, we also had evidence of unhealthy coping strategies; for example, excessive avoidance of trigger situations, increased consumption of alcohol, and smoking.
  • We encourage people experiencing feelings of anxiety to try our evidence-based recommendations to help them to manage it, including getting active and speaking to family and/or friends.

However, we can’t tackle anxiety by only focusing on remedies for individuals. National and local policymakers must prioritise actions to promote good mental health for all and to reduce anxiety, particularly for people at the highest risk of experiencing persistent and overwhelming anxiety.

We are calling for:

  1. The development and delivery of 10-year cross-governmental mental health strategies in each of the nations of the UK, with a strong focus on prevention as well as treatment.
  2. Financial support schemes that alleviate financial stress for people experiencing poverty and/or financial strain, such as the Essentials Guarantee campaign being led by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The Trussell Trust.
  3. All frontline workers to receive training so they know how to respond effectively to the mental health effects of financial stress and strain.
  1. Support for community social networks, resources, and resilience. We recommend fast-track access to funding to sustain and grow grassroots organisations (or initiatives that are likely to support them), and action to make social media and the online environment safer.
  2. Implementation at the scale of programmes and approaches to improve relationships, and the culture and environment in which people grow, learn, live, and work. For example, evidence-based parenting programmes, interventions to create mentally healthy workplaces, and whole-school and college approaches to mental health that include anti-bullying programmes.
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