Are You Worried, Or Is It Anxiety?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

Because most of us regularly experience feelings associated with anxiety, it can be hard to know when they are becoming problematic. But there are certain signs that you may be experiencing challenges that go beyond day-to-day stress and tension.

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 the effects of anxiety.

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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 a 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 anxiety is experienced frequently, severely, or for no apparent reason. When this is the case, anxiety can be a sign of a mental health condition.

Anxiety disorders

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 have feelings of consistent worry, fear, or anxiety, and these feelings may or may not be related to specific challenges. Symptoms of this anxiety disorder often interfere with multiple areas of day-to-day life, such as work, school, or relationships. 

Panic disorder

Panic disorder can cause you to have intense feelings of fear and anxiety, which may occur without warning or apparent cause. Panic attacks typically last several minutes, can severely impact an individual’s ability to function, and often cause apprehension regarding potential 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

Phobias are when you have feelings of fear and aversion to specific objects or situations, such as heights or enclosed spaces, that cause intense anxiety reactions when encountering the feared subject. Having specific anxiety 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 figure(s). The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder often arise out of beliefs that this person will be harmed or that something else will happen to create a longer-term separation. 

When does worry become a disorder?

If your anxiety symptoms linger, occur frequently, cause functional impairment, or lead to emotional distress that impacts your daily functioning, you may benefit from anxiety treatment. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides accepted guidance regarding when anxiety might be a sign of a mental health condition. According to the DSM-5, 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 difficult to manage, and lead to at least three anxiety symptoms from the below list:

  • Restlessness

  • Fatigue

  • Trouble focusing

  • Irritability

  • Physical tension

  • Chest pain

  • Disruptions to sleep schedule, including difficulty falling and staying asleep


In addition to these anxiety symptoms, you may have several other signs of generalized anxiety disorder or other anxiety disorders:

  • Behavioral – Significant changes to eating habits or active avoidance of places, people, or situations that may cause anxiety. 

  • Physical – Medical problems such as gastrointestinal distress, increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, headache, unexplained pain, heart palpitations, and hyperventilation or other breathing problems.

  • Psychological – Intense sense of impending doom or persistent danger, mood swings, difficulty making decisions, disorientation, and brain fog. 

Experiencing these anxiety symptoms can worsen anxiety, causing a loop of heightened stress, intensified physical sensations, and further negative thoughts and emotions. 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.  

While it may seem as simple as looking up the symptoms of anxiety disorders and seeing which ones fit your situation, diagnosis of an anxiety disorder 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 or worry?

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, especially if an individual has to revisit that specific event in some way. 

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Treatment for mental health disorders

Even if your anxiety 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.

Psychotherapy

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 anxiety 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. CBT has proven helpful in treating anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorders, and more.

Medication

Certain medications 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 anxiety medication. 

Lifestyle changes

Managing anxiety through alterations to your daily habits can provide you with added relief. Consider incorporating some of these alternative treatments for anxiety 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 and 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

  • Get regular exercise

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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 anxiety 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.

Takeaway

Anxiety caused by chronic stress can significantly impact an individual's overall well-being and quality of life. When symptoms are lingering, worsening, or affecting a person’s ability to function, they may point to the existence of an anxiety disorder.

Worry, tension, irritability, fear, and other signs of anxiety are common feelings, which can sometimes make it hard for individuals to know whether they should be concerned. In addition to consulting with a provider who can screen you and determine whether a diagnosis and treatment are necessary, consider connecting with a licensed, supportive therapist online. With the right resources and advice, you can limit the negative effects of anxiety and continue to nurture mental and emotional wellness.

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