Anxiety is a normal emotion everyone experiences in response to stressful events and uncertainty. However, it’s not normal to have constant anxiety or to feel so overwhelmed that you can’t function. For many people, anxiety can be so powerful that it controls their behavior and prevents them from doing things they enjoy. In this article, you’ll find information about the symptoms of anxiety, anxiety disorders, and treatments that can help anxiety sufferers improve their ability to calm their fears and worries.
What is anxiety?
When we describe someone as anxious, we’re usually talking about a sense of nervousness or worry that goes beyond typical levels and disrupts their life significantly. It’s normal to feel jittery on a day you’re taking an important test, for example. However, if you’re feeling worried most of the day, or if minor problems send you into a tailspin, you might have a problem with anxiety.
Symptoms of anxiety
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Racing thoughts, rumination, or excessive worry
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty coping with normal stressors
- Anxiety can also come with physical symptoms. These can include:
- High heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Chest tightness
- Muscle tension
Highly anxious people may also become more easily fatigued by normal events and tasks than people with less anxiety.
Sometimes, it’s tough to recognize the symptoms of anxiety if you’ve been anxious for much of your life. And if you’re around people who are also anxious, extreme anxiety might seem normal to you. You might wonder, “Doesn’t everyone stay up all night panicking before a job interview?”
However, even if your anxiety symptoms aren’t severe enough to affect aspects of your life like work or relationships, they still might be worth addressing with a professional. If your symptoms are significant enough to bother you, there’s no reason to avoid treatment just because you aren’t sure it qualifies as a disorder.
What causes anxiety?
The causes of anxiety are complex and probably involve more than a single factor. Your chances of developing an anxiety disorder likely have to do with some combination of your family history, your life experiences, and what’s happening in your life right now.
Increasingly, adverse childhood events have been shown to contribute to anxiety symptoms in adults (De Venter et al., 2013; Sachs-Ericsson et al., 2017). These experiences may include—but are by no means limited to—emotional or physical abuse or neglect; traumatic events like natural disasters or serious injury; or systemic issues like racism, poverty, or homophobia.
Often, anxiety is made worse by your environment. If you’re stressed by everything that’s going on in your life, it might not be your brain that’s the problem. It’s possible that you’re stressed and overwhelmed simply because you have too much going on. A therapist might be able to help you untangle which aspects of your anxiety are irrational, and which aspects are simply a reaction to stressful life events.
Anxiety disorders and symptoms
Anxiety can affect anyone, even people without anxiety disorders. You certainly don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to seek treatment, and many people find therapy or support groups helpful even when their anxiety does not rise to the level of a disorder.
However, if anxiety has started to affect your quality of life in noticeable ways, you might have an anxiety disorder. You can read about common anxiety disorders below. Remember, only a trained mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves high levels of anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and significantly impair your functioning, such as your work performance or social life. If you’re worried or anxious most of the time, or if you’ve found that anxiety greatly affects your happiness or ability to get things done, you may have GAD.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
People with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) experience extreme fear in situations that might cause others to observe or judge them. SAD may cause you to worry that people will criticize the way you eat or laugh, for example, or mock you for a presentation you made at work. Fearing other people’s judgment, you might skip a party that would otherwise be enjoyable or avoid singing in front of other people even if you’re good at it.
While many people experience social anxiety at one time or another, in people with SAD, these fears are out of proportion to what’s actually likely to happen. They cause serious distress or avoidance of everyday activities.
Panic disorder (PD)
Panic Disorder (PD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by panic attacks, which are brief periods of intense fear that last about 20 to 30 minutes. During these attacks, people with PD can experience symptoms like heart palpitations, chest pain, shaking, sweating, nausea, or dizziness.
The unpredictability of panic attacks can cause a person with PD to avoid things they enjoy doing or need to do. In extreme cases, people with PD become afraid of leaving their homes or going into public places out of fear of having a panic attack.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) suffer from unwanted thoughts and fears—called obsessions—that cause distress and interfere with their daily life. These thoughts can be wide-ranging and involve many different themes. Common obsessions include:
- Fear of harming oneself or others
- Fear of contamination
- Fear of sinning or violating religious law
- Difficulty tolerating uncertainty
- Difficulty with asymmetry and disorder
- Need to repeat certain actions or words
- Fear of acting on an unwanted impulse (e.g., shouting obscenities in public).
People with OCD often try to get rid of these thoughts or urges by performing compulsions, also known as rituals. Someone afraid of hurting their family might avoid sharp knives, for example. Someone who fears illness might compulsively seek reassurance from doctors. Some rituals can be mental. For example, someone with an obsessive fear that their spouse is cheating on them may mentally catalogue all their spouse’s past behavior and weigh the evidence for and against. Compulsions can take hours out of an OCD sufferer’s day and make them dread everyday tasks.
How is anxiety diagnosed?
A therapist will typically use a structured interview to assess your anxiety symptoms. This interview may include questions about your psychiatric history, family history, current symptoms, lifestyle, work, and family. Some therapists might use standardized questionnaires that ask to rate your symptoms.
Anxiety can be treated effectively with therapy, medication, or both. The decision about what kind of treatment to seek depends on the person. Most people will make this decision with their therapist or psychiatrist.
When to seek treatment
Here are some signs that you might want to look into treatment for anxiety:
- You start to avoid things you like to do, or need to do, out of fear
- You can’t stop worrying or ruminating once you start
- Anxiety has started to cause unpleasant physical effects
- You avoid socializing with other people, even if you want to
- You have problems sleeping, eating, or taking care of yourself
- Anxiety starts affecting your work or education
- The people in your life say they’re worried about your anxiety levels
Even if you don’t recognize any of these signs, you might still benefit from treatment. You don’t need permission from anyone to get treatment, and your anxiety doesn’t have to be affecting your life in a major way for you to want help. In fact, it’s better to get help before anxiety starts having a major impact on your life.
While anxiety can be treated using many types of therapy, many of the most common modalities used to treat anxiety fall into the broad category of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on the beliefs and attitudes that affect the way you approach life, and on maladaptive behaviors that might reinforce your anxiety.
One common cognitive behavioral therapy is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). An ACT therapist can help you learn to observe your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations rather than automatically reacting to them. With ACT, you’ll identify your values and move toward them instead of moving away from things that make you anxious.
Another cognitive behavioral therapy commonly used to treat anxiety—especially OCD—is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). ERP involves gradually learning through experience that feared situations are safe, and that safety behaviors—things you do to avoid the feeling of fear, like checking the stove or asking other people for reassurance—aren’t necessary to keep you safe and prevent catastrophe.
Some people find that medication helps relieve the symptoms of anxiety. Medication can be prescribed by a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. They will discuss the risks and benefits of different medications with you and coordinate with your therapist if you have one.
If you believe anxiety may be affecting your life negatively, you don’t have to deal with it alone. Make an appointment with a Mindpath Health clinician and get started on your path toward better mental health.