Getting Diagnosed With Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated June 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Although we sometimes tend to think of mental health issues as easily identifiable, many mental health disorders, such as a generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, have the potential to go unnoticed as not all the symptoms within a disorder present severe enough to warrant a trip to a doctor or therapist's office.

For example, anxiety is commonly associated with panic attacks from panic disorder. While these attacks can occur in individuals who have anxiety, not everyone who experiences anxiety experiences panic attacks. Other symptoms of anxiety can go unaddressed and negatively impact us, even if we are not aware of them.

If you have experienced anxiety that’s less easy to identify, you may often second-guess yourself regarding your mental health. You may even wonder whether you are overreacting or truly experiencing a mental health issue. If you believe that you may have anxiety, it’s vital to get the opinion of a mental health professional so they may determine an appropriate diagnosis for you.

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Learning to manage your anxiety is possible
What is anxiety, and when is it a problem?
When one hears the word “anxiety,” one might picture an individual who is constantly worried or afraid about most aspects of their life and is experiencing physical side effects because of anxiety symptoms. While this may be the case for some individuals, it is a limited picture of the spectrum of anxiety experiences, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder; the scope of anxiety disorders can range from severe and life-altering to minor and intermittent.

Another common misconception regarding anxiety is the belief that anxiety is a clear indication of mental disorders and is a bad sign when it appears in our lives. But in fact, anxiety is a healthy emotion when experienced in balanced proportions designed assist with survival. 

When something scares or worries us, it triggers our fight-or-flight response, boosting the adrenaline in our systems and manifesting in physical and mental ways: for instance, quickened pulse, sharpened awareness, tunnel vision, and so on. While danger can trigger this response, so can a non-life-threatening situation like a job interview or public presentation. These responses are completely typical and will often wear off after the situation resolves.

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While these kinds of anxiety are natural, anxiety disorders take these responses one step further and can leave individuals in a constant state of fear and nervousness that often impacts their ability to function normally in their day-to-day lives.
Rather than experiencing anxiety when it strikes, these individuals are always anticipating dangers to come up in their lives, which prevents them from following through in all or specific aspects of their lives. 

Anxiety disorders can range anywhere from mild to severe, which is why it can sometimes be hard for some individuals to determine whether they have an anxiety disorder, especially if they have been living with feelings of anxiety for a long time. 

Anxiety disorders are thought to be caused by a confluence of genetic and environmental factors. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, neurobiological influences, personality traits, and developmental factors can play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Major life changes and traumatic experiences can also help cause anxiety. 
Common anxiety symptoms
Knowing some of the most common symptoms associated with anxiety disorders is the first step to knowing if you do have one. If you have ever been really worried about something in your life, you know anxiety can manifest as one or more physical symptoms. You may notice symptoms like:
  • increased heart rate or heart palpitations
  • chest pain
  • difficulty concentrating
  • hyperventilation
  • sleep disturbance
  • excessive sweating
  • high blood pressure
  • rapid heartbeat
  • trembling or shaking
  • an inability to concentrate
  • stomach pains or other gastrointestinal issues
  • panic attacks 
  • Individuals with more severe anxiety disorders may experience these physical symptoms more severely and regularly. These medical conditions may make them feel anxious to a greater degree.
Anxiety disorders and chronic stress responses have several physical symptoms in common, and both can negatively affect the human body over time. If you are experiencing one or more of the physical symptoms listed above but do not routinely feel overwhelming nervousness or fear, you may be experiencing chronic stress, not anxiety. But severe stress can lead to anxiety or other mental and physical health concerns; therefore, it’s as important to address this issue as soon as possible. The ability to manage anxiety and common mental health conditions is crucial.
Here are some of the major symptoms that come with anxiety disorders:

Excessive worrying

People with a normal coping capacity for anxiety will typically know how much they should worry about a situation based on how serious it is. For example, if you are waiting to hear back about a small medical issue from your doctor, you will likely be less worried than if you were waiting to hear back about whether you will be fired from your job. People who have anxiety disorders like social phobia, however, will typically worry excessively about a given situation and will have an atypical stress response to varying situations. People with an anxiety disorder are more likely to be preoccupied with worry on a regular basis. 

Feeling agitated and irritated

The human body is not designed to process large amounts of stress and nervousness for extended periods. Hormones that are released during this process have a negative impact over time when they are constantly being released; a side effect of this consistent release and storage of chemicals in the body is agitation which can often result in an individual lashing out at others unprovoked. 

Restlessness 

While it is not a symptom of an anxiety disorder on its own, feeling restless or “on edge” for most of your days during any given week is a sign that often accompanies other symptoms in this list. In addition, this restlessness can also cause problems at night, as those experiencing it may have trouble falling or staying asleep due to feelings of nervousness and fear.

Tension and fatigue

An anxiety disorder can often make a person feel tense and tired; fear and nervousness while constantly dealing with intrusive thoughts can result in muscle tension and overall fatigue. If you are feeling tired and tense and struggling to find ways to de-stress, your feelings may indicate that you are coping with an anxiety disorder.

Irrational fears that impact functioning

For some individuals, anxiety disorders can bring about irrational fears that spread across all aspects of their lives which can lead to constant anxiety and regular panic attacks. 

For others, however, the fear may be localized to a specific part of life—for instance, debilitating fears of public speaking or leaving home to enter public places. If you are experiencing fear that is strong enough to keep you from certain activities, you may have an anxiety disorder in need of treatment. 
How to get diagnosed with anxiety disorders
Typically, to be diagnosed with a mental health condition, an individual must be evaluated by a healthcare professional—often a psychiatrist, psychologist, primary care provider, or psychiatric nurse practitioner. This assessment may consist of screenings, a physical examination, and blood tests. The provider will normally ask the individual to discuss the mental and physical signs of anxiety they’ve experienced, along with their family and personal history of mental illness, use of prescription medications, and lifestyle. 

The diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders are outlined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Healthcare professionals will often compare an individual’s symptoms to these criteria to determine whether a diagnosis is necessary. The following are a few common anxiety disorders and an overview of their primary diagnostic criteria. 
Generalized anxiety disorder
To be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, an individual must experience persistent, excessive worry and fear that interferes with their ability to function. These feelings must have been present most days for a six-month period. The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can arise out of various situations instead of being caused by specific triggers.  
Social anxiety disorder
A person may be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder if they experience intense nervousness in social situations. Symptoms of social anxiety must persist for six months and cause significant impairment in various facets of life. Social anxiety is often connected to a fear of being perceived negatively. 

Panic disorder

Panic attacks—periods of sudden, excessive anxiety—are the primary feature of panic disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, panic disorder may be diagnosed if an individual experiences ongoing panic attacks that cause concern about their recurrence or abnormal behavioral changes. 
Coping with symptoms of anxiety disorders
Treatment for anxiety disorders usually involves psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. Talk therapy can help relieve symptoms of anxiety by allowing a participant to develop coping strategies, identify the sources of their feelings, and address symptoms of potential comorbid conditions. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one effective therapeutic modality for people who experience anxiety, helping them understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Other forms of psychotherapy that can reduce anxiety include exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and benzodiazepines can be used to treat anxiety disorders. SSRIs are commonly prescribed for long-term treatment. Other forms of anti-anxiety medication, particularly benzodiazepines, are usually prescribed for short-term treatment—often for people with anxiety disorders that produce severe symptoms. Always consult with a healthcare provider prior to starting or stopping any medication. 

There are several lifestyle changes that can help people with anxiety alleviate their symptoms. Maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep can improve treatment outcomes and reduce the severity of symptoms. There is also evidence that herbal remedies can be efficacious in reducing anxiety. Additionally, support groups can provide individuals with the chance to connect with other people who are experiencing anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has both its own online communities and a list of local support groups. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also hosts support groups across the United States. 

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Learning to manage your anxiety is possible

Counselor reviews

Consider these reviews from BetterHelp users who have worked with online therapists to address their anxiety issues:

“Sherell Taylor-Page has been wonderful to talk to. She helps me whittle my anxieties down to their beginnings and work on the root of them. She offers many different types of tools to use when I am anxious that have helped immensely. She is supportive of actions I would like to take and helps me to take those next steps. I would highly recommend her.”

“Darlyn has changed my life in a very short amount of time. I had never participated in counseling before, but with Darlyn’s support, I went from feeling stuck and anxious to having the courage to initiate changes in my life, both minuscule and drastic. She offers incredible perspective and asks great thought-provoking questions. Chatting with her via messaging and our weekly sessions has become a great support system and I would 10/10 recommend her to everyone I know.”

Takeaway

People often want to identify if they have anxiety on their own, and the list of symptoms above can give you a better idea of whether you may have an anxiety disorder. However, only mental health professionals can make a formal diagnosis and recommend a course of action. If you are unsure of your emotional and mental health, then you should consider reaching out to an expert.

A therapist can help you determine whether you are dealing with a specific disorder (for example, generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder), as well as identify strategies and skills that will help you manage your anxiety in the long term. Many people experiencing symptoms of anxiety choose online therapy because it’s convenient. You can arrange your sessions with a therapist around your schedule and lifestyle and you can meet whenever and wherever you’d like. Even if you are experiencing fears of leaving your home or public speaking, you can work with a therapist at BetterHelp by video chat, phone call, or text messaging.
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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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