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Understanding anxiety

Anxiety is a natural response to stress or perceived threats.

When these feelings persist beyond the immediate situation, they can become overwhelming and affect daily life. Recognising and addressing these feelings is a sign of strength.

A man sitting on a rock watching a mountain afar

Anxiety is a natural response to challenging situations. It's how our body and mind prepare for potential challenges. However, when these feelings linger or feel out of proportion to the situation, they can disrupt our daily lives.

The reasons for feeling anxious can vary and might be influenced by current challenges (such as money worries), past experiences (being worried it might happen again) or concerns about the future (such as climate change). Remember, seeking support is a sign of resilience and strength.

Having feelings of anxiety doesn’t always mean that you have an anxiety disorder. Everyone feels anxious when dealing with uncertainty, but if you are feeling this way most of the time, there are people and strategies that can help you feel better. If you feel like a diagnosis might be right for you, speak to your GP.

While we've named this section "understanding anxiety", everyone's experience of these feelings are unique. You might identify with different terms or descriptions. Embrace the words that speak to your experience.



worried and nervous



to be uneasy in mind, disturbed, worried, anxious, distressed, concerned



if something overwhelms someone or something, it is too much or almost too much for them to manage



to be anxious, uneasy, worried, apprehensive



unhappy because of thinking about problems or unpleasant things that might happen

manawa pā


to be apprehensive, anxious, have misgivings, reluctant, unwilling



slightly worried or uncomfortable about a particular situation



to be anxious, worried, preoccupied

People feel anxiety in different ways

Anxiety is different for everyone. Drawing from models like Te Whare Tapa Whā can help identify areas of your life affected by anxiety and areas you wish to strengthen.

Te Whare Tapa Whā

Listen to their story here.

Connections – maintain, retain positive connections with whānau. Stay active. Keep Te Whare Tapa Whā – all the walls – standing strong. You know one of those walls have got cracks in them man, yeah, they're, they're gonna fall eventually – all four of those walls eh. If you fellas don’t know Te Whare Tapa Whā, go and check it out. It actually helped.

Hinengaro | Emotional health

Emotions are complex, and understanding them can be challenging. If you recognise any of these feelings, remember to be compassionate towards yourself and consider seeking support.

Things you might notice:

  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry.
  • Thoughts of the worst happening.
  • Having trouble relaxing.
  • Difficulties with falling or staying asleep.
  • Having trouble concentrating.
  • Racing or spiralling thoughts.
  • Thinking that you can’t cope.
  • Feeling hopeless, whakamā (ashamed), pōuri (sad), nervous, anxious or on edge.
  • Feeling that you have lost your mana.
  • Thinking badly about yourself.

Some things to try:

  • Find words to say or think that make you feel calm – karakia, prayer, poetry, whakataukī, mantra, motto, proverb or personal words.
  • Write down what you feel – things you're grateful for, songs or stories can help to make sense of your thoughts.
  • Kōrero – talk to people you trust about how you’re feeling. This could be a friend, helpline, doctor, church leader, sports coach or family member. Our asking for help page can help you start the conversation
  • Take a shower, open a window to let fresh air in or complete one task on your to-do list. Try one thing at a time. Small changes add up to make bigger changes over time.
  • What makes you feel inspired, calm or energised? It might be an old hobby, a song or movie, a good friend, a favourite place.
Tinana | Physical health

Physical symptoms can accompany emotional distress. Recognising these signs can help you take proactive steps towards wellbeing.

Things you might notice:

  • Feeling like your heart is racing or pounding.
  • Tension in your body – you might feel it in your shoulders, neck or jaw.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Tight chest and difficulty breathing.
  • Feeling hot and sweaty.
  • Feeling shaky or jittery.
  • Sleeping a lot more or a lot less.
  • Struggling to concentrate.
  • Changes in your appetite – some people lose their appetite, some people feel more hungry
  • Feeling like your brain won’t rest or it’s harder to think things through.
  • Feeling restless, hōhā, moody, easily annoyed or unable to sit still.

Some things to try:

  • Take notice of where you feel anxiety in your body. Take a few deep breaths. Drop your shoulders and unclench your jaw.
  • What makes you feel calm? Spend time outside, talk to a friend, watch a movie.
  • Move your body in any way you are able – walk to the end of the driveway, run, dance, throw a ball around with a friend.
  • Activate your senses. Have a cold shower, make a hot drink, listen to music, play music or bake something that smells and tastes good.
  • Change your physical environment. Try opening curtains or a window, lighting a candle (safely), sitting outside in the sun, tidying or cleaning a room in your house.
Wairua | Spiritual health

“We know when our wairua is being nurtured by how people if they listen to us, it upholds our mana, which also strengthens our wairua.” – Matua Tau Huirama

Our spiritual wellbeing is deeply connected to our overall health. Finding ways to nurture your spirit can be a source of strength and healing.

Things you might notice:

  • Feeling numb or disconnected.
  • Feeling like you have lost your sense of self.
  • Staying away from your usual sources of strength like your church, iwi, hapū or marae, whānau and friends.
  • Feeling like life has lost its meaning.
  • Feeling empty, lonely, mokemoke.

What makes you feel connected? Can you make time to try any of these things over the next week?

Some things to try:

  • Move your body or your mind in a way that feels good to you.
  • Spend time in nature – go for a bush or beach walk or swim in a river.
  • Breathe deeply and steadily. Breath is a powerful tool to connect to each other, yourself and te taiao (nature).
  • Are there specific cultural, religious or community practices that nourish your wairua, give you strength or make you feel connected?
  • Talk to a spiritual adviser such as a priest or a tohunga.
  • Find something to do that connects you with other people – watch a sports game, go to a concert or go to church.
Whānau | Relationships and social health

Our connections with others play a vital role in our wellbeing. If you feel isolated or distant from loved ones, consider reaching out and reconnecting.

Things you might notice:

  • Feeling lonely or isolated.
  • Wanting to be left alone.
  • Avoiding the people close to you.
  • Picking fights with whānau and friends.
  • Spending a lot of time alone.

Some things to try:

  • Talk to people about what you’re feeling. The people in your life want to support you, and they may have already noticed you haven’t been yourself recently. Start the conversation here.
  • Spend time with people who lift you up. This could be simply doing nothing together or talking about mental health and everything in between.
  • Go to whānau birthdays, anniversaries and holiday get-togethers.
  • Make a meal with a friend.
  • Go for a walk or a swim with friends.
  • Join online forums or chat groups.
Whenua | Connection to land and roots

Our connection to the land and our roots can offer solace and grounding during challenging times. Embracing these connections can be a source of healing.

“Most times being in nature was able to calm me just by listening to the ocean or trees rustling. It has always been a good reset for me and a place I did my loudest crying.” – Read the full story

Things you might notice:

  • Spending a lot of time inside.
  • Feeling homesick.
  • Feeling disconnected.
  • Feeling like you don’t belong.

Connecting with your land and roots will look different for everyone. There’s no right or wrong way.

Some things to try:

  • Get outside in nature – take note of the things you can see, hear, smell and touch.
  • Get your hands dirty in the garden.
  • Explore places that are meaningful to you, your culture or your community. This could be either physically or visualising it in your mind.
  • Connect with ancestors through learning about your culture, karakia, prayer or speaking to your whānau about people who have passed on.

Colonisation has impacted indigenous peoples’ ability to connect with indigenous land. Different people might recognise and push back against this in different ways. For example, you could learn about the land you’re connected to, learn about the stories and nature and history of your land. You can connect with others in similar situations through volunteering or collective action.

Diagnosing anxiety disorders

There are many types of anxiety diagnoses, each with its unique characteristics. Recognising these can be the first step towards seeking support and finding coping strategies.

Generalised anxiety disorder (often abbreviated to GAD, anxiety or anxiety disorder) is when people worry about a number of things across a wide range of situations and issues (not just one event) and this impacts their daily life. These symptoms are present for most days for 6 months or more.

Phobias are extreme fears that can be specific to a situation, place or object. They can make people feel a deep sense of panic and dread. These fears can be overwhelming and debilitating.

Some common phobias have specific names. For example, arachnophobia is an intense fear of spiders and claustrophobia is a phobia of being closed in or being stuck in a place that you can’t escape from.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is when someone has unwanted, intrusive and persistent thoughts (obsessions) and feels compelled to do specific mental or physical actions to reduce their anxiety or to get rid of those thoughts (compulsions). Having some intrusive thoughts (such as worrying you forgot to lock your car) is very common, but people with OCD have obsessions and compulsions that take up a lot of time and energy and can be very upsetting.

For example, someone may be convinced that if they don’t flick a light switch a specific number of times (compulsion) something horrible will happen (obsession).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a reaction to a highly stressful event or experience where a person feels unsafe or threatened. This fear can be related to an unusual experience such as exposure to war, a natural disaster or abuse.

People with PTSD may have flashbacks or nightmares or feel frightened when they see or hear things that remind them of the trauma. It can also be hard to concentrate and may include feelings of guilt, anger, fear or shame.

Panic attacks are intense episodes of anxiety that come with sudden physical symptoms. These can include palpitations or a pounding heart, sweating, tension in your chest making it hard to breathe (hyperventilating) and feeling dizzy or nauseous.

A panic attack can be overwhelming but generally does not last long – although when it is happening, it can feel much longer. Most attacks will peak within 10 minutes and fade away, but they can be shorter or last longer.

Getting help

If you recognise these signs in yourself, consider reaching out for support. Remember that you're in control of your journey, and seeking help is a sign of strength.

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