Did you know that there are more than 3 million cases of anxiety disorders in the United States each year? It's true! Despite how common these disorders are though, they are often poorly understood. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding means many people fail to recognize the symptoms of anxiety when they appear, so they fail to get themselves help.
Is anxiety the same thing as stress?
Stress and anxiety appear similar and may cause similar bodily and emotional reactions, but they are not exactly the same condition. So, what's the difference between them? Specifically, stress is a reaction to something like an upsetting event. Anxiety is you reaction to the stress itself.
Why do we have anxiety?
Although it may not seem like it, anxiety is a perfectly normal and often healthy response. In fact, the occasional sensation of anxiety indicates that our bodies are working correctly.
So, why exactly do we feel anxiety anyway?
Well, simply put, anxiety is a survival mechanism our ancestors developed. Specifically, anxiety rings our bodies' internal "alarm bells" (fight or flight) when it feels it is in danger. By sending the body into a fight or flight response, our ancestors could fend off or evade dangers, meaning they lived to see another day. So although symptoms of anxiety may be uncomfortable, they were put in place by evolution to prepare one to flee or physically confront a threat.
When is anxiety a problem?
When a person feels disproportionate amounts of anxiety on a daily or near-daily basis, it becomes a recognized disorder. The APA describes a person with anxiety disorder as "having recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns." When anxiety reaches the point of becoming a disorder, it can often interfere with daily functions and interactions.
The best way to handle anxiety? Seeking professional help, which may be paired with prescription medications and other forms of therapy and relaxation. However, in order to treat anxiety, someone first has to recognize that they have an anxiety problem.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
So, just what are some of the tell-tale signs that someone is battling a potential anxiety disorder? The first sign is perhaps the most classic symptom of anxiety disorders...
1. Excessive Worrying
One of the most constant and recognizable symptoms of anxiety? Excessive worrying.
What is excessive worrying?
Worrying about something every now and again is perfectly normal and even healthy. However, when it is constant or near-constant and interferes with day-to-day functioning, it is considered excessive.
How does excessive worrying manifest?
This symptom causes someone to feel uneasy or overly concerned about a situation, whether it is a realistic threat or not. This reaction can lead to panic that can keep one from performing their daily tasks.
Why does anxiety cause excessive worrying?
Anxiety triggers the body's fight-or-flight reflex. When anxiety is constant, this reflex may never seem to "turn off." The result? Excessive worrying as the mind searches for the danger that the body is so tense for.
When the body's fight-or-flight response is activated often, it can also lead to the following explosive symptom of anxiety...
Someone who appears consistently agitated might not have woke up on the wrong side of the bed; they could very well be dealing with the unpleasant side effects of anxiety.
What is agitation?
Agitation is defined as "a state of excessive psychomotor activity accompanied by increased tension and irritability." In other words, agitation is a physical and emotional state of feeling anxious or especially nervous.
When is agitation a problem?
Agitation can be a response to any sort of provocation... or none at all. Now, it is quite normal to feel agitated from time to time. In fact, it is a normal symptom of having a high-stress day, feeling ill, and experiencing grief.
However, when agitation starts to take over one's everyday life, it can become a symptom of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Why does anxiety cause agitation?
Anxiety tricks the brain into thinking it has sensed danger. As a result, the brain sends signals to prep the body to either fight the threat or flee from it.
Now, while anxiety can definitely make the sufferer feel "on edge," it can also lead to intense crashes later...
This symptom can be surprising to some, as anxiety is typically described as a hyperactivity disorder. However, feeling "wiped out" is also a commonly reported symptom of anxiety sufferers.
What is fatigue?
Fatigue is extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness. It is not the same thing as feeling a little tired. If naps or adequate amounts of rest never seem to leave one feeling well-rested, it is likely fatigue.
What are signs of fatigue?
Fatigue is often accompanied by the following sensations:
- Feeling weak or sore
- Being unable to concentrate
- Feeling irritable
- Always feeling tired despite getting enough quality sleep
Why does anxiety cause fatigue?
Fatigue can be a direct or indirect symptom of anxiety. In other words, the hormonal changes caused by anxiety can result in fatigue. Other times, fatigue may be the result of other anxiety symptoms like "crashing" from agitation and excessive worry.
All in all, anxiety causes this symptom because it naturally alters your energy levels, bringing about great highs and great lows. That is why many people feel extremely tired if they have anxiety.
Anxiety or something else?
It's important to note that fatigue alone is not enough to warrant an anxiety diagnosis. After all, fatigue may be the result of many other conditions, including:
- Eating disorders
- Kidney problems
Once again, anxiety can create great highs and great lows. So, don't be surprised for the following symptom to accompany fatigue...
Anxiety creates highs and lows. One of those "highs"? Restlessness.
What is restlessness?
Restlessness is defined as the inability to rest or relax as a result of anxiety or boredom.
What are the signs of restlessness?
Restlessness usually gives one an uncomfortable urge to move. It can be characterized by:
- Excessive leg bouncing
- Finger tapping
- Fidgeting with nearby objects
How common is restlessness in people with anxiety?
The National Institute of Health states that "one study in 128 children diagnosed with anxiety disorders found that 74% reported restlessness as one of their main anxiety symptoms." Therefore, restlessness is one of the first "red flags" doctors look for when making anxiety diagnoses.
How does anxiety cause restlessness?
Anxiety activates the body's fight-or-flight response quite regularly. This response releases a surge of adrenaline, or "nature's energy." When one is fueled with a heavy dose of adrenaline, it causes an overwhelming urge to move.
When someone is constantly dealing with this fight-or-flight response, it can also lead to difficulties with cognition...
5. Difficulty Concentrating
If someone constantly seems distracted or cannot focus on one particular task for extended periods of time, it could be yet another indication that they are suffering from anxiety.
What is difficulty concentrating?
Concentration difficulty is a decreased ability to focus your thoughts on something.
What are the signs of difficulty concentrating?
Concentration problems can manifest in many ways, including:
- Consistently "zoning out" during conversations
- Cannot pay attention on one task for extended periods of time
- Cannot sit through an entire movie or TV show
- Issues with short-term memory
Why does anxiety cause difficulty concentrating?
As is the case with fatigue, concentration problems may be both directly and indirectly caused by anxiety. Specifically, anxiety can mess with hormones to the point that it interferes with short-term memory.
Additionally, other symptoms of anxiety, such as fatigue and excessive worry, may bring about concentration problems. In fact, many argue that fatigue brought upon by anxiety is a direct causes of being unable to concentrate with these disorders.
It all has to do with that fact that our brain's shifting priorities. Specifically, our brains are fully consumed by an overwhelming urge to sleep (thanks to anxiety) and other intrusive thoughts, pushing more important issues and cognitive functions (like concentration) to the side.
Anxiety or something else?
Many people with anxiety often have difficulty concentrating due to the intrusive thoughts taking up their mind or because they are too fatigued to focus. Although, difficulty concentrating can be a sign of other disorders, such as ADD and ADHD. Therefore, difficulty concentrating alone cannot warrant an anxiety diagnosis; it must be paired with other anxiety symptoms, too.
Expect physical symptoms, too.
Anxiety may be a mental illness, but that doesn't mean it only affects the mind. Anxiety, like other mental health problems, can wreak plenty of damage on the body, too...
6. Muscle Tension
Unfortunately, society at large often misunderstands mental illnesses. That's why it's not uncommon for many people to be surprised that anxiety disorders (as well as plenty of other mental illnesses) can lead to not just mental and emotional problems, but physical discomfort, too.
What is muscle tension?
Muscle tension refers to the condition in which muscles remain semi-contracted for an extended period.
Having tense muscles every now and then is not a problem; it is just an everyday issue of life. However, when one experiences muscle tension on most days of the week, it may be symptom of anxiety when paired with other anxiety symptoms.
What are the signs of muscle tension?
Muscle tension is generally characterized by sore and achy muscles. It may also feel difficult for one to move and perform their daily activities.
Why does anxiety cause muscle tension?
Anxiety causes this symptom because the release of adrenaline (fight or flight) naturally causes the body's muscles to contract in an effort to get ready to fight or flee a supposed threat. This increased level of muscle contraction leads to prevalent muscle tension.
Can physical therapy help?
Possibly. Several studies show that muscle relaxation therapies have decreased not just muscle tension but also other symptoms of anxiety like intense worrying.
While this anxiety symptom is uncomfortable, the next one can literally keep someone up at night...
Anxiety can literally keep people up at night. This fact might come as a surprise since fatigue is another symptom of this condition.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a condition which causes one to have lots of trouble falling and/or staying asleep. Additionally, to be diagnosed with insomnia, one has to report poor sleep quality/dissatisfaction with their sleep.
What are signs of insomnia?
Signs of insomnia include:
- Not being able to fall asleep at night
- Not feeling well rested after a full night in bed
- Waking up during the night
- Difficulty paying attention during waking hours
What are the dangers of untreated insomnia?
Sleep problems are no joke; they do far more harm than simply making you feel irritable and "fuzzy" the next day. Consistent sleep deprivation can increase the risk of some serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and even stroke.
How does anxiety cause insomnia?
Sleep problems and mental illnesses often go hand in hand. Now, sleep problems can create or worsen anxiety problems and vice versa. Oftentimes, these issues feed into each other, creating a viscous cycle of increasing sleeplessness and heightened anxiety.
Anxiety can generate insomnia in several ways. Sometimes, excessive worrying may literally keep someone up at night. Other times, the hormonal imbalances due to anxiety can prevent the body from experiencing healthy sleep.
If you can only treat insomnia or anxiety, which one should you treat?
If for some reason you can only receive help for sleeping disorders or anxiety problems, treat the sleeping disorder. Usually, treating any underlying sleep disorders can treat anxiety other symptoms of anxiety as well. Furthermore, research shows that those who treat their mental health disorders but not sleeping-related problems are at a greater risk for relapse in the future.
The following sign of anxiety? It's probably the one people most associate with this condition...
8. Panic Attacks
While stress and anxiety can be chronic (long term) and dull, panic attacks are acute (sudden, short term) and incredibly intense. They are one of the most debilitating side effects of anxiety and panic disorders.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety.
What are signs of panic attacks?
Panic attacks normally happen in isolated situations; however, recurring panic attacks are a strong symptom of anxiety. This extreme fear is usually accompanied by:
- Cold and hot flashes
- Shortness of breath (hyperventilation)
- Increased blood pressure
- Tightness in the chest
Unfortunately, panic attacks are one of the most common and physically uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety.
Why does anxiety cause panic attacks?
Panic attacks are usually caused by a perceived threat rather than imminent danger. In other words, these perceived threats do not exist at all and are simply fabrications of one's imagination.
Specifically, panic attacks are the result of anxiety-induced stress buildup. Once the physical and emotional stress reach a peak, there is nothing the body can do but break down into a full-blown panic attack.
While panic attacks are brief and intense, the following symptom can last longer but still be just as debilitating...
Irritability is a normal emotion to feel from time to time. When it interferes with daily life, it can be a symptom of anxiety.
What is irritability?
Irritability is a type of agitation; it causes one to feel snappish, petulant, and resentful.
What are signs of irritability?
This sensation normally causes one to feel:
- Easily upset
- Constantly annoyed
- Like they are losing control of their lives
- Easily frustrated
How common is this symptom?
According to a recent study by the National Institute of Health, "more than 90% of those with generalized anxiety disorder reported feeling highly irritable during periods when their anxiety disorder was at its worst."
Why does anxiety cause irritability?
Panic attacks can be the result of stress buildup or the response to a specific stress trigger. So, anxiety disorders often mean that people will go out of their way to avoid their personal anxiety triggers. Constantly thinking about triggers and possible panic attacks can be overwhelming, which can generate irritability.
Anxiety can also cause irritability due to constantly messing with the body's hormones. Furthermore, not getting enough sleep can heighten this symptom's severity.
Closely related to irritability is the following nail-biting symptom...
Another nail-biting hallmark of anxiety disorders? Nervousness.
What is nervousness?
Mayo Clinic defines nervousness as "intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations." In other words, nervousness is over-the-top, around-the-clock worrying about anything and everything.
What are the signs of nervousness?
- Fast heart rate
- Restlessness or feeling "jumpy"
- Feeling tense
- Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
Why does anxiety cause nervousness?
Although nervousness is usually a short-term feeling in response to stressful situations, it is can be an all-consuming feeling when tied to anxiety. Nervousness boosts one's body's adrenaline production in preparation to fight or flee an oncoming threat.
Therefore, anxiety causes nervousness because this disorders makes the body believes it has perceived a threat. Whether the threat is real or not, it makes someone nervous about needing to flee a situation or confront it directly.
Now, someone people do not enjoy confrontations at all. As a result, they will try to avoid stressful situations at all costs, which is yet another classic sign that someone has this mental illness...
11. TriggerÂ Avoidance
Sometimes people with anxiety might seem to withdraw and avoid certain places, situations, or even people. This might be a manifestation of trigger avoidance.
What is trigger avoidance?
A trigger is something like an event or situation that causes something else. An anxiety trigger is therefore something that creates uncomfortable sensations of anxiety. Trigger avoidance is when someone takes deliberate steps to avoid anxiety triggers.
What are common anxiety triggers?
Anxiety triggers vary by individual. That being said, common general triggers include:
- Health issues
- Skipping meals
- Financial concerns
- Social events
- Certain people
In some instances, constantly thinking about avoiding anxiety triggers can trigger an anxiety attack itself.
Why does anxiety cause trigger avoidance?
People with anxiety usually connect their symptoms to something negative. As a result, they tend to avoid these somethings in an effort to reduce stress; in other words, people attach their anxiety to something so strongly that coming into contact/experiencing this something can trigger intense feelings of anxiety. In some cases, a panic attack may result.
The following symptom of anxiety? It's an uncomfortable physical sensation that can create day-to-day discomfort...
12. Gastrointestinal Problems
Muscle aches aren't the only physical symptoms of mental illnesses; it's also common for people with anxiety to experience gastrointestinal distress.
What are gastrointestinal problems?
Gastrointestinal problems is an umbrella term that refers to issues with the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). The GI tract includes:
- The mouth
- Small intestine
- Large intestine
What are common gastrointestinal problems for people with anxiety?
People with anxiety may experience:
- Stomach cramps
- Appetite changes
- IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome
How common are GI issues for anxiety sufferers?
Many studies show a correlation between anxiety and functional gastrointestinal symptoms. In fact, one PLOS One article states that
"people who have at least one GI symptom are more likely to have an anxiety disorder or depression than those without any GI symptoms. In fact, unexplained physical complaints, as a wholeâ€”fatigue, headache, stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, and musculoskeletal painsâ€”were more commonly reported in individuals with an anxiety disorder and/or depression."
Why does anxiety cause gastrointestinal problems?
There are plenty of ways anxiety disorders can lead to GI problems, including:
- Anxiety can generate muscle tension, which may lead to stomach and other intestinal cramps. In turn, this may lead to other GI issues.
- Additionally, an imbalance of hormones can lead to plenty of GI distress, as hormones like serotonin and norepinephrineâ€”commonly associated with moodâ€”can also influence digestion.
- Anxiety medications also commonly cause GI distress.
The last symptom of anxiety on our list? It leaves people shakingâ€”literally...
While trembling is often associated with conditions like Parkinson's disease, it's also quite common in people with anxiety disorders.
What is trembling?
Trembling is uncontrollable shaking.
Why does anxiety cause trembling?
Shaking or trembling is a part of an anxious response to a situation. Specifically, it results from the fight-or-flight response initiated by the sympathetic nervous system.
Specifically, part of the brain called the amygdala initiates this response. It triggers the release of the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which is secreted from the adrenal glands. Now, high levels of epinephrine can cause uncontrollable and uncomfortable muscle twitching.
What's most important for those suffering from anxiety to know?...
Managing Anxiety is Possible
Millions of people suffer from anxiety every year, making this mental illness incredibly common.
What causes anxiety?
There are many factors that can lead to a person developing anxiety. Some of these factors include:
- Childhood and adult trauma
- Stress due to an illness
- Personality traits
What happens when anxiety isn't treated?
If proper measures are not taken to control of anxiety, it can lead to a plethora of other problems. These issues can include:
- Substance misuse and dependence
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
- Problems functioning at school and work
Anxiety management is possible.
Thankfully, there are many measures to reduce anxiety and keep it under control. Anxiety is best treated early on, so it is important to seek help from a licensed medical professional if you or a loved one experience any of these symptoms.
Other ways to manage anxiety include:
- Staying active and partaking in activities and hobbies that make you feel good can help keep the intrusive thoughts characteristic of anxiety at bay.
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs can also keep anxiety under control as studies show that substance use triggers and exacerbates symptoms of anxiety.
- Engaging in stress management and relaxation techniques. In other words, incorporating activities such as yoga and meditation into daily routine.
A happy, healthy life is possible.
Although stress and anxiety may arise in your everyday life and impact your performance at school and work, it's important to accept this condition and strive to be mindful of it. While anxiety may never be cured, it can be managed, and it's possible to live a happy, fulfilling life with this condition.