Feeling nervous, worried, or scared in response to danger or uncertainty is normal. However, if those feelings linger or worsen over time, or seem to occur without a discernible cause, they may be a sign that you’re living with a mental health condition.
Read on to find out how symptoms of anxiety disorders can differ from typical feelings of apprehension or fear and learn about the various ways you can manage their effects.
What Is Anxiety?
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety refers to the cognitive and physiological processes your brain and body utilize in response to danger, hardship, and uncertainty. Anxiety typically causes worried or fearful thoughts, along with physical changes like rapid heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension. This response can be useful in many circumstances, helping us sense danger and motivating us to act. However, it can also be harmful if it is experienced frequently, severely, or for no reason. When this is the case, anxiety can be a sign of a mental health condition.
Anxiety disorders are common mental health challenges, with a lifetime prevalence of approximately 30% among adults. While many of the characteristics of various anxiety disorders are similar, their symptoms can differ in many ways, including the situations in which they arise and their severity. The following are common anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
An individual with generalized anxiety disorder may be consistently worried, fearful, or anxious, and these feelings may or may not be related to specific challenges. Symptoms of this disorder often interfere with multiple areas of day-to-day life, such as work, school, or relationships.
Panic disorder can cause intense feelings of fear and anxiety, which may occur without warning or an apparent cause. Panic attacks typically last several minutes can severely impact an individual’s ability to function, and often cause apprehension regarding future episodes.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry or nervousness in social situations. This anxiety disorder often arises out of a fear of judgment or humiliation and can cause an individual to become isolated.
Phobias are feelings of fear and aversion to specific objects or situations, such as heights or enclosed spaces, that cause intense reactions when encountering the feared subject. Phobias can lead to extreme forms of avoidance.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety refers to intense distress, worry, and fear related to being apart from one’s attachment figures. This often involves distress due to beliefs that this person will be harmed or that something else will happen to create a longer-term separation.
When Does Anxiety Become A Disorder?
If your anxiety symptoms linger, occur frequently, cause functional impairment, or lead to emotional distress, you may benefit from treatment.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) provides accepted guidance regarding when anxiety might be a sign of a mental health condition. According to the DSM, generalized anxiety disorder may be present if feelings of nervousness and worry are excessive and happen more than half the time, for at least six months; are hard to manage; and lead to at least three symptoms from the below list:
- Trouble focusing
- Physical tension
- Disruptions to sleep schedule
In addition to these symptoms, you may experience several other signs of GAD or other anxiety disorders:
- Behavioral—Significant changes to eating habits or active avoidance of places, people, or situations that may cause anxiety
- Physical—Gastrointestinal distress, increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, headache, unexplained pain, hyperventilation, or other breathing problems
- Psychological—Intense sense of impending doom or persistent danger, mood swings, difficulty making decisions, disorientation, and “brain fog”
Consider consulting with a healthcare provider to ask about an anxiety disorder assessment if your feelings of worry or anxiety involve persistent, intrusive concerns; cause you to avoid certain situations, people, or places; or lead to physical reactions such as a racing pulse, dizziness, shaking, or sweating.
Often, anxiety may be problematic when it causes disruptions to your life. Do you find that tension and nervousness often cause you physical pain or make it hard for you to focus? Do you often struggle to bounce back after experiencing feelings of nervousness and worry, feeling the effects long after the anxiety-inducing stimulus has passed? These could be indicators that you’re living with an anxiety disorder.
While it may seem as simple as looking up the symptoms of anxiety disorders and seeing which ones fit your situation, diagnosis requires the assistance of a physician, psychiatrist, or a similar healthcare provider. If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, consider asking a healthcare professional for an evaluation.
The process of screening for anxiety disorders often starts with a medical history and physical exam to rule out any potential underlying medical conditions that could be causing your symptoms. Your healthcare provider will also likely use a series of assessment tools to identify your symptoms and their severity. If they provide you with a diagnosis, they will typically either refer you to another provider or begin developing a comprehensive treatment plan based on your symptoms.
What Causes Anxiety?
There is not yet a unified theory of the source of anxiety. Instead, most experts believe a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors causes anxiety disorders. Genetics, developmental experiences, variations in brain chemistry, personal history, and comorbid mental and physical health disorders can all contribute to whether you develop an anxiety disorder.
Because anxiety is often a result of uncertainty, major life changes, such as starting a new career, moving, or losing family can lead to the development of symptoms. Additionally, a traumatic event may cause significant stress that becomes difficult to manage.
Treatments For Anxiety Disorders
Even if your symptoms do not rise to the level of an anxiety disorder, they can negatively affect your mental and physical health, in addition to your career, relationships, and overall quality of life. Treatment for anxiety can help you avoid these potential effects. Often, treatment plans for anxiety involve medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Additionally, there are several lifestyle changes that can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety on a day-to-day basis.
There are numerous psychotherapeutic techniques that can help individuals manage anxiety. Many mental healthcare providers use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help participants recognize harmful thought patterns and behaviors. For example, a therapist may help an individual recognize that their beliefs about the dangers of a specific phobia are irrational and strongly linked to maladaptive behaviors, such as avoidance, and feelings of intense worry.
Certain drugs may be prescribed to alleviate the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are antidepressants that are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. Other anti-anxiety medications include beta blockers, benzodiazepine, and buspirone. Always consult with a healthcare professional prior to starting or stopping any medication.
Managing anxiety through alterations to your daily habits can provide you with added relief. Consider incorporating some of the following techniques into your routine.
- Keep a journal to track your anxiety triggers, emotional reactions, and which coping skills help during different situations
- Establish practical morning and bedtime routines to help you stay productive and prepare for your day (wind down from your day)
- Develop a self-care routine
- Practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques
- Eat a balanced diet
- Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption
- Exercise regularly
How Online Therapy Can Help
The results of a growing number of studies suggest that online therapy can help individuals reduce symptoms of anxiety. For example, in a meta-analysis that included 20 studies, researchers found that online therapy led to significant improvements in worry and anxiety for participants experiencing generalized anxiety disorder. The study also mentions the ability of online therapy to bridge the treatment gap that exists in mental health care by providing available and cost-effective solutions.
If you’re experiencing trouble managing your anxiety symptoms, consider speaking to a licensed therapist online. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can address concerns regarding anxiety remotely, through video calls, voice calls, or in-app messaging. Online therapy is an affordable option—BetterHelp subscriptions start at $65 per week (billed every 4 weeks), and you can cancel anytime.
Do I have anxiety or am I just worried?
The distinction between ordinary worries and clinically significant anxiety may not always be completely clear. According to the American Psychological Association, feelings of worry may be symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) when they’re excessive, persistent, and hard to control. If your worries never seem to go away, or if they seem out of proportion to the actual risks you’re facing, this may suggest that you’re experiencing an anxiety disorder.
Another indicator can be if your worries seem to be disconnected from anything specific. Unlike normal anxiety, which is typically related to some particular situation that you think might go wrong, this type of “free-floating anxiety” can be a symptom of GAD.
Sometimes, the best indicator of a psychological disorder can be an impaired ability to function in everyday life. Are your feelings of worry making it hard for you to complete your goals, relate to others, meet your obligations, or otherwise manage your life? If so, it may be worth talking with a mental health specialist such as a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
Do I just think I have anxiety?
It’s possible to feel anxious without meeting the criteria for a formal diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not experiencing anxiety, though. It might simply mean that you don’t currently fit the specific profile of a person with one of these disorders.
However, without an assessment from a qualified mental health professional, it can be hard to say for certain whether your anxiety is within normal levels. One of the key differences between ordinary anxiety and a mental illness can be whether it interferes with a person’s life satisfaction and ability to function. If your anxious feelings are causing you significant distress, it’s often a good idea to talk with a therapist.
Do I have anxiety and not know it?
Anxiety disorders aren’t always obvious to the people affected. It’s possible to experience anxiety symptoms without feeling anxious on a conscious level. All of the following can be signs of anxiety disorders:
- Difficulties with attention and decision-making
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Rumination (repetitive negative thoughts that are hard to let go)
You might also experience physical symptoms of anxiety. Unpleasant bodily sensations such as muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue could be signs of an anxiety disorder of which you’re not yet aware.
Another possible indicator is the occurrence of panic attacks. These are brief, sudden episodes of intense distress, often manifesting in bodily disturbances like:
- Racing heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
When you experience these types of symptoms and doctors can’t trace them to a disease or physical problem, it could be a panic attack. This can happen even if you aren’t conscious of anxious feelings.
Does anxiety make you worry about everything?
Generalized anxiety disorder can cause different symptoms in different people. In some cases, it may lead to a pervasive sensation of worry that seems to recur no matter what you do. Some individuals might feel overly severe anxiety in situations that might only provoke mild worry in others.
In certain anxiety disorders, an individual’s worries may be narrowly focused on a particular area of life. For example, someone with social anxiety disorder (SAD) might experience anxiety only when they’re preparing to go out in public or interact with other people. Phobias can involve intense fear of specific things or scenarios, such as heights, dogs, or enclosed spaces. People with conditions like these may not feel worried about everything, but their distress around the objects of their anxiety can still cause them significant difficulties.
Can you have anxiety and not be worried?
You can have an anxiety disorder and not feel worried most of the time. For some people, anxiety may manifest as feeling restless, easily annoyed, or constantly fatigued. It may also present with mostly physical symptoms such as insomnia, teeth grinding, lack of appetite, headaches, or muscle tension. Someone with these symptoms might not recognize that they’re experiencing persistent anxiety until they begin to work on them with a doctor or therapist.
Does anxiety always mean fear?
Anxiety and fear can sometimes be considered synonyms, but in other cases, fear may refer to a more intense, urgent physiological response to danger. Anxiety often indicates a milder but more pervasive feeling of concern, often related to hypothetical possibilities rather than immediate threats.
Someone feeling an urgent desire to flee from an immediate threat could be considered afraid but not anxious. In contrast, someone who can’t stop thinking about how their presentation at work next week could go wrong might be anxious but not afraid.
How do you explain what anxiety feels like?
Explaining how anxiety feels to someone who hasn’t experienced it may be difficult. One thing that may help is to describe some of the added symptoms that can accompany your anxious thoughts and emotions. Some people may not realize that anxiety can involve more than simply feeling worried.
Describing physical feelings can be one place to start. Explaining that your anxiety can cause you to sweat, shake, get dizzy, and experience stomach cramps or nausea may give the person you’re talking to a clearer idea of what you’re going through.
You could also try explaining that anxiety exaggerates your normal response to stressful situations. The other person might not realize that the worry you feel over the prospect of small failures is an intense dread rather than a simple sense of concern.
Sometimes, it can help to describe the way that anxiety distorts your thinking. You can discuss the way that it impairs your ability to focus, causing persistent distractions with distressing thoughts.
Why do I have anxiety for no reason?
Anxiety can sometimes seem hard to explain, especially when there’s no obvious reason to feel worried. Scientists are still working to decipher the exact causes of anxiety, but current evidence suggests that it may involve a combination of the following:
- Genetic and epigenetic causes. Research indicates that between 30% and 50% of the variance in anxiety is related to family history, suggesting that some people may be predisposed toward anxiety disorders as a result of their genes.
- Neurological differences. The “anxious brain” may have structural differences in certain key regions, particularly those involved in functions like threat processing.
- Early life experiences. Distressing experiences during the developmental period, including child abuse and parental coldness or neglect, may make people more likely to develop anxiety later in life.
How does anxiety affect your daily life?
Pathological anxiety can have a wide variety of negative impacts on your daily life:
- Anxious feelings can decrease enjoyment of normally pleasant activities
- Avoidant behavior can cause missed opportunities
- Persistent stress can have negative impacts on interpersonal relationships
- Fatigue and distraction can impair your work performance
- Panic attacks may lead to feelings of fear or shame
- Prolonged stress can lead to worse physical health
Are stress and anxiety the same thing?
Stress and anxiety may commonly be related, but according to the American Psychological Academy, they’re not identical. Stress can be understood as an immediate response to specific challenges, misfortunes, or dangers. It can involve feelings of mental distress as well as physiological changes like clenched muscles or an elevated heart rate. Over the long term, stress can affect a variety of bodily functions, such as cardiovascular health or metabolic control.
In contrast, anxiety may be less linked to specific causes and involve a more widespread feeling of worry. Often, anxiety lasts even after an initial source of stress has gone away. It may also arise in response to future or imagined scenarios rather than what you’re experiencing right now.
Both stress and anxiety fall under the heading of “psychophysical responses to difficulty or danger”. However, stress is often understood as a more short-term physiological response. Anxiety can be more long-term, with more pronounced cognitive and emotional components.
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