Understanding the Symptoms of Severe Anxiety

Updated December 22, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Going back to the beginnings of human existence, the awareness of predators and the incoming dangers that came with it set off alarms in the early human brain and allowed them to quickly react and evade harm. These alarms became noticeable in the form of a raised heartbeat, sweating, and increased sensitivity to surroundings, and it’s no different today. Replace woolly mammoths with a predator on the street or that gut feeling that something isn’t quite right, and we see that the process of exerting a survival mode though healthy anxiety reactions are still very much alive. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and worry, but it can be harmful when anxiety symptoms are severe and rise to the level of an anxiety disorder.

Think You're Experiencing Severe Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by nervousness, fear, and worry. So, what happens when we’re triggered by an anxiety disorder? The presence and fear of danger cause a rush of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland that quickens the heartbeat, strengthens the force of the heart’s contraction, and opens up the bronchioles (air passages) in the lungs, among other effects. The secretion of adrenaline is part of the human “fight or flight” response to fear, panic, or perceived threat.

What is Severe Anxiety?

Occasional anxiety is normal, but problems arise when a person has chronic anxiety for a prolonged amount of time. This can lead to an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder. If these mental health conditions are severe enough, excessive anxiety can create serious issues. People with anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, experience frequent, intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about normal, everyday situations. These mental illnesses often involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense and overwhelming anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes; these episodes are a panic disorder known as panic attacks.

Severe anxiety episodes, like panic attacks, are quick, sudden episodes of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when in actuality, there may be no real danger or apparent cause. Not to be discounted or diminished, panic attacks can be very frightening. In fact, when panic attacks occur, one might think they’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying. A person with a panic disorder might find their anxiety disorder interfering with their daily life, causing them to miss work, go to many doctor visits, and avoid situations where they fear they might experience a panic attack.

These feelings of intense anxiety and panic commonly interfere with daily activities such as work performance or school; they are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual, real danger, and can last a long time. Because of the fear and anxiety, a person may purposefully avoid places or situations to prevent these feelings from arising. No one is immune to an anxiety disorder, including severe anxiety, and anxiety symptoms can begin as early as childhood or the teen years and can continue into adulthood, especially if help is not sought out.

Risk factors for anxiety disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic, include a family history of anxiety, underlying physical health concerns, substance use, and trauma. The Mayo Clinic also lists stress buildup, personality traits, and illness as possible causes.

Generalized anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders can not only alter how a person processes emotions and how they behave, but the anxiety disorder can also cause physical symptoms. As a result, not only can professional duties and relationships be negatively affected, but personal relationships can as well, including those with family, friends, and partners.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorders, are the most prevalent mental health disorders in the US. Here are some facts related to anxiety disorders:

  • Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.
  • Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those living with it receive treatment.
  • People with anxiety disorders are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor, and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not have anxiety disorders.
  • Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
  • Severe anxiety disorders are elevated, extreme, and prolonged instances of anxiety.

Understanding the Symptoms of Severe Anxiety

The difference between generalized anxiety disorder and severe anxiety lies not so much in the type of anxiety but in the severity and the lifespan of it. Generalized anxiety disorder is usually less extreme and relatively shorter in duration. Here are some common types of anxiety disorders that may cause someone to experience severe anxiety symptoms.

  1. Panic Attacks

panic attack is a type of severe anxiety with a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions even though there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous, seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. This is understandably so because panic attacks can be very frightening. Panic disorder, also known as anxiety disorder, can cause panic attacks. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. When panic attacks occur, which can erupt instantaneously from being consciously or unconsciously triggered, you might think you’re out of control, having a heart attack, or even on the verge of dying – that’s how serious and severe a panic attack can be.

Many people have just a couple of panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem eventually goes away, usually when the stressful situation ends. But if you’ve had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks, and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have experienced the severe anxiety disorder classified as a panic disorder.

  1. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a mental health anxiety disorder condition that is triggered by a traumatic event – either by actually experiencing it like on the battlefield in the midst of war, or by witnessing domestic violence, or witnessing someone dying. While PTSD isn’t an anxiety disorder, it is viewed as closely related to anxiety disorders. With PTSD, you may think the visions and memories are gone, but more than likely, they will reappear at some point and trigger the same anxiety-driven feeling that you felt at the time of the incident. The symptoms caused by this disorder may include flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. A person with a panic disorder may experience increased effects of PTSD.

Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If symptoms do not lessen, become progressively worse, last for months or even years, or interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD. For more information about post-traumatic stress disorder, check out the Mayo Clinic’s PTSD page.

  1. Phobias

Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder exhibiting excessive, persistent, and severe fears of a specific object, situation, or activity that is generally not harmful. For the most part, patients know their fear is excessive, but for whatever reason, they can’t overcome it. But specific phobias can cause such severe anxiety and distress that some people go to extreme lengths to completely avoid what they fear. There are many examples of phobias, including the following:

Think You're Experiencing Severe Anxiety?
  • Severe social phobia or social anxiety: The fear of public humiliation and being singled out or judged by others in a social situation. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 7% of US adults live with social anxiety disorder. As a result, the mere idea of large social gatherings can make someone with social anxiety feel anxious. Having panic disorder and severe social phobia can exacerbate the self-consciousness of social anxiety. Severe symptoms of social anxiety disorder can include physical symptoms (e.g., rapid heart rate), social isolation, and even selective mutism
  • Severe agoraphobia: This is a fear of situations from which it would be difficult to escape if a person were to experience extreme panic, such as being in a lift. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is especially likely in public places and can cause an individual to avoid going places where they may experience panic again. Having agoraphobia in combination with panic disorder can cause heightened exacerbation.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: A person with a severe separation anxiety disorder will typically feel anxious and fearful about separating from those with whom they are attached, as a mom, dad, or caretaker. Separation anxiety disorder symptoms include being persistently worried about losing the person closest to them, having a reluctance to go out or sleep away from their home or without that person, or experiencing nightmares about separation. Physical signs of distress often develop in childhood, but symptoms can carry through adulthood.
  • Severe specific phobia: If someone is very fearful of one particular thing or situation, they might have a specific phobia. This can also evolve into a severe phobia. For example, people can have phobias about things such as:
    • Animals such as dogs, lions, snakes.
    • Flying in airplanes
    • Fear of heights
  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD has two characteristic types of symptoms:
    • Obsessions: intrusive and unwanted thoughts.
    • Compulsions: behaviors performed in an attempt to relieve stress or anxiety and over which an individual has little or no control to stop.

Compulsions are a type of disorder that isn’t an anxiety disorder per Diagnostic and Statistical Manual standards but is considered related, thus their close grouping near anxiety-based disorders within that same manual. People with OCD may experience compulsions to perform behaviors targeting the ease of anxiety or fears that become impossible to ignore. They might think that doing repetitive actions will relieve stress, but in actuality, that effect is temporary, leading them to do the actions over and over again.

Compulsions can also follow a theme, such as counting, washing, or a constant need for reassurance. Signs include the following:

  • Excessive hand washing, even if their skin is already raw.
  • Arranging objects in a precise way.
  • Repeatedly checking doors, the stove, or other things to make sure they’re off, even if it means they can’t leave the house.
  • Silently counting or repeating a word or phrase, even though they so desperately want to stop.

Anxiety disorders such as severe anxiety can be debilitating mental health disorders that can emotionally paralyze anyone, but treating anxiety is possible. You can connect with a licensed mental health provider who can help you treat anxiety disorders through BetterHelp. BetterHelp allows you to participate in talk therapy from the comfort of home. A qualified mental health specialist can help you manage symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions. Whether you have questions about anxiety disorders as a whole, generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, or other mental health concerns, the licensed professionals at BetterHelp are available 24/7, seven days a week, to answer any questions you have, help you control fear and anxiety, and guide you toward a place of better health.

Other Questions People Commonly Ask

How serious is severe anxiety?

Severe, intense anxiety is a very serious matter and one that can have a huge impact on an individual’s mental health and exacerbate an underlying health issue. Generalized anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders can lead to difficulty concentrating, intense feelings of worry or nervousness, and can even bring about suicidal thoughts.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988 and is available 24/7. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, generalized anxiety disorder can not only lead to mental health concerns but also physical health conditions, such as heart conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, and trouble sleeping.

For tips on how to reduce anxiety, take a look at the Mayo Clinic’s Stress Management page, the National Institute of Mental Health’s Anxiety Disorder page, or the American Psychiatric Association’s What are Anxiety Disorders page.

What can cause severe anxiety?

Many different things can trigger anxiety in an individual. According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, can come about because of increased stress or worry, a medical condition (e.g., cancer, irritable bowel syndrome), substance use, or trauma.

Certain risk factors researchers have identified—such as having family who live with anxiety or having a specific personality—can increase the likelihood of developing generalized anxiety disorder or make anxiety symptoms worse. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, other risk factors can include shyness as a child, caffeine use, and certain medications.

Luckily, generalized anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders are very treatable mental health conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic anti-anxiety medications are commonly used to treat anxiety, as is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The Mayo Clinic also mentions that your treatment plan for anxiety disorders could include lifestyle changes like getting plenty of exercise, changing your diet, and practicing stress management exercises. You can also consider joining a support group, where you can interact with others who are living with an anxiety disorder.  

What does anxiety feel like physically?

According to the Mayo Clinic, physical symptoms of anxiety include rapid heart beat, trembling, sweating, shallow breathing, and feelings of weakness and fatigue. You may also experience muscle tension, trouble swallowing and dry mouth, and dizziness. For more information on the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety, check out the Mayo Clinic’s anxiety disorders page.

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