Understanding Anxiety

By: Sarah Fader

Updated February 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Audrey Kelly, LMFT

Anxiety Signs, Symptoms, Types and Treatment

Anxiety is one of the most common reasons that people reach out to us at BetterHelp for services. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. 40 million Americans, 18% of the population, 18 and older struggle with some form of anxiety. Although it is a disorder that is highly treatable, statistics show that only 1/3 of individuals struggling will ask for help overcoming anxiety. For most types of anxiety disorders, women are twice as likely to be affected as men. This is a guide to tell you about some anxiety symptoms and signs, the various types of anxiety, and some treatment options you may find useful. It will also tell you who is more susceptible to anxiety, medical causes of anxiety, and answer some frequently asked questions about overcoming anxiety.

Understanding Anxiety

According to Helpguide.org, "Anxiety is the body's natural response to danger, an automatic alarm that goes off when you feel threatened, under pressure, or are facing a stressful situation." Anxiety has physical and emotional symptoms that an individual experiences to various degrees. Many individuals experience anxiety from situations that they deem stressful such as going on a date, taking an exam, and meeting a deadline. Anxiety can be positive when it motivates us. It becomes a problem when it becomes impairing and interferes with functions of our everyday life.

Who is likely to experience anxiety?

  • Females are 50% more likely to experience anxiety.
  • Adults and childhood victims of trauma
  • People who have stress due to a medical illness
  • People who have let stress build-up, and have no healthy release
  • Individuals with anxious personality types
  • Individuals who also experience anxiety along with
  • Individuals with a familial history of anxiety
  • Individuals who use drugs and alcohol

Medical Causes of Anxiety

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems, such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism
  • Asthma
  • Drug abuse or withdrawal
  • Withdrawal from alcohol
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Rare tumors that produce certain "fight-or-flight" hormones
  • Premenstrual syndrome

Anxiety Symptoms and Signs

You may notice the following symptoms and signs in yourself or in others:

Poor memory, focus, and concentration - You are finding it harder and harder to focus on tasks that need to be done. You struggle to recall information on the spot, if at all. Your concentration is significantly impacted, where you find it difficult to concentrate on a particular task or item that needs to be done. You are easily distracted and on edge.

Tension, irritability, and worry - You notice muscle tension and all over body aches and pains. You are more easily irritated with people and situations, often "snapping" at people. You worry often, and struggle to turn the intrusive and negative thoughts off.

Feeling a loss of control and nervousness - You feel as if you have no control over your life, and that something bad happening is inevitable. You feel nervous to leave the house, go to social events or work, and you may even struggle to relax and sleep at night.

Rapid heartbeat, trouble breathing, and dizziness - You become so anxious that your heart rate and blood pressure increase. You start to breathe rapidly, or have trouble breathing. All of these factors can lead to making you feel dizzy which is a common anxiety symptom.

Sweating - You become so nervous, that you actually begin to sweat. This is often a side effect from rapid heart rate, fast breathing, and shaking.

Shaking hands and body - You start to shake uncontrollably. You notice tremors in your hands, and have trouble making this stop. This is due to increased adrenaline, and the body's reaction to fear and stress.

Increased fatigue with associated sleep issues - Too much sleep, too little sleep, trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, tossing and turning all night, and daytime drowsiness. The most common issue is not being able to turn your thoughts off at night, and being afraid to fall asleep.

Fearing the worst - This is an overall impending sense of doom, and that something will go wrong. It is also catastrophizing, where you fear the worst possible case scenario.

Restlessness - You have trouble relaxing. You can't turn your body or your mind off. Your mind is racing and fearing the worst, and your body cannot settle down and get comfortable as it fears it will need to flee or move.

Physical aches and pains - An overall feeling of aches and pains, and a general feeling of not being well. Anxiety can manifest physically in this way due to constant muscle tension and an inability to relax.

Headaches and migraines - You may or may not have had a history of migraines and headaches. Whatever the case, they are now more frequent, and are typically more intense in nature. These are often rooted in the constant tension you are experiencing in your body.

Nausea and/or vomiting - Individuals can become so anxious that they become nauseous from the stressful thoughts and physical reactions to the body. Our thoughts have a strong impact on our body. Some people will become so anxious, and so nauseous, that they end up vomiting.

Types of Anxiety

General Anxiety

6.8 million adults, 3.1% of the U.S. population

These individuals feel anxious most of the time, many without knowing the root cause. These individual often have more physical than emotional symptoms.

Panic Disorder

6 million adults, 2.7% of the U.S. population

This includes panic attacks, and fear of having one. It often becomes a cycle of panic and being in a constant anxious state, due to fearing another panic attack. These can feel up to the extremes that you are having a heart attack, and this can also be accompanied with Agoraphobia, which is a fear of public places and being somewhere you can't escape.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

2.2 million adults, 1% of the U.S. population

This involves intrusive thoughts and patterns that the person feels unable to stop. It is constant worry, and fear that something bad will happen if they do not repeat patterns or take part in compulsions.


19 million adults, 8.7% of the U.S. population

This is fear of objects, people, activity, places, or specific situations. People go to great lengths to avoid their phobias, which actually serves to make those phobias stronger.

Social Anxiety Disorder

15 million adults, 6.8% of the U.S. population

This is the belief that no one likes you, or no one will like you in new social or work situations. Some people think of this as shyness, but do not understand what is going on in the person's mind. Performance anxiety falls into this category.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

7.7 million adults, 3.5% of the U.S. population

This is the type of anxiety that an individual has after they witness or experience a traumatic event. This typically has the additional anxiety symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, isolation, and avoiding situations that remind the person of the event.

Anxiety Treatments

Learn to challenge and change negative thinking by understanding anxiety.

  • Write down what worries you.
  • Set a daily timeframe where you are allowed to worry.
  • Work to accept what you have control over.

Focus on what you have control over, and let go of what you don't.

  • Work to focus on what you do and do not have control over, and let go of what you don't.

Focus on the present, not the future.

  • Anxiety is often defined as those who worry too much about the future.
  • Learning to live in the present can reduce anxiety.

Learn relaxation techniques such as:

  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery

Utilize physical, emotional, mental, and soothing "grounding" techniques.

  • A therapist can offer you a long list of grounding techniques which can help you distract yourself and break up intrusive thoughts.
  • You can do these anywhere, anytime, and no one would know.

Develop healthy eating and exercise habits.

  • When we are physically active and eating well, we feel better overall.
  • Exercise produces hormones and chemicals which enhance mood.

Get enough sleep each night, and learn good sleep practices.

  • Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Go to bed at the same time and wake up the same time each day.
  • Remove the television and screens from the bedroom.
  • Don't have caffeine after 2pm.

Reduce the use of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.

  • Alcohol causes disrupted sleep.
  • Cigarettes stimulate the system causing wakefulness.
  • Caffeine causes wakefulness and stimulates the system.

Work with a therapist to practice CBT and exposure therapy techniques.

  • CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) looks at the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Exposure therapy starts with imagining the stressor, and gradually works up to exposing you to the stressor in a safe environment.

Investigate the themes and roots of your anxiety.

  • Try to identify the cause of your anxiety so that you can avoid triggers.

Check with your doctor about the potential use of proven supplements for overcoming anxiety.

  • There is a great deal of research that shows promise for supplements that help with overcoming anxiety. Speak with your doctor about possible options, and be sure to mention any other medicines you are taking, including over the counter medicines.

Socialize, go out, and stay active.

  • Reconnect with friends and family, and do activities you once enjoyed.
  • Take part in local group activities to make new friends.
  • Attend Social Anxiety groups.

Develop organizational and time management systems.

  • Develop organizational systems that keep you on track by schedule, task, and project.
  • Getting a physical planner or calendar can help put things in a big picture for visual people.

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