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Feeling anxiety is a normal part of life. But for some people, the thought of talking in front of other people or participating in many other regular activities leaves them with an intense fear that impacts their quality of life.
When these intense feelings of worry or fear interfere with your daily life, it could be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is defined as intense fear or worries about everyday events (Chand, 2021). It’s normal to experience some anxiety when faced with a stressful event. But when anxiety happens too often or too intensely, it starts to affect your daily life.
Anxiety is linked to the state of fear or alarm caused by the nervous system’s response to a perceived danger. Imagine going for a hike, and a bear comes across the hiking trail. You see the threat, and your body responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” response (Chand, 2021).
The nervous system prepares your body to either run away or fight off the danger by increasing your heart rate, breathing, and other parts of your body. Once the bear is gone, your heart rate and breathing return to normal.
It’s believed this same response happens with the different types of anxiety disorders. The main difference with an anxiety disorder is feelings can occur without a clear source of danger or may seem excessive compared to the reality of the situation.
A few of the common types of anxiety disorders include (Chand, 2021):
- Generalized anxiety disorder: Persistent fear, worry, and overwhelm of everyday activities
- Agoraphobia: Fear of places or situations that might cause panic or helplessness
- Social anxiety disorder: Fear of situations or events that may expose you to other people’s negative opinions. This is also called social phobia.
- Specific phobias: Intense fear of a specific something that poses little to no actual risk
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): A condition leading to recurring thoughts or urges to do something repetitively
- Panic disorder: Recurrent experience of panic attacks and the fear of experiencing another panic attack
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Anxiety and flashbacks that occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic life event
- Separation anxiety disorder: Intense fear when separated from attachment figures (such as parents or significant others) or when thinking about being separated from those figures.
- Selective mutism: Inability to speak in one or more social situations where there is an expectation to talk, even though the individual can speak in other settings.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders
An anxiety disorder can lead you to change your daily life to avoid people, situations, or events that could cause symptoms. There are physical, emotional, and behavioral changes that could be signs of anxiety disorders.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are related to the nervous system’s response. When preparing for a perceived threat, your body releases energy, increasing some of your body’s processes that prepare you for action.
However, in modern days, many people aren’t releasing that nervous energy produced from anxiety. Instead, many people spend a large portion of their days working at a computer or doing other tasks that don’t allow for the release of anxious energy. The energy produced from anxiety or work stress then feels like it builds to an overwhelming level.
11 physical symptoms of anxiety and how to treat them
Here are some of the physical signs of anxiety (Chand, 2021):
- Increased heart rate or palpitations: You may notice your heartbeat increases to a rapid, pounding, or irregular rate.
- Chest pain or pressure: Anxiety can create sensations of chest pain or the feeling of pressure building in your chest.
- Lightheadedness: You may feel lightheaded, dizzy, or like you may pass out from anxiety. The symptoms can progress to fainting or losing consciousness.
- Upset stomach and digestive symptoms: You may feel nausea and discomfort in your stomach from anxiety. These feelings could even lead to vomiting or increase the urge for a bowel movement in some people. Anxiety can also affect your appetite, leading to the loss of appetite or urge to overeat.
- Chills or hot flashes: Some people may experience their hands, feet, or other parts of their body feeling cold or chilled while anxious. Others may feel hot, flushed, or start sweating while anxious.
- Shaking: You may experience trembling or shaking in your hands or other muscles.
- Numbness or tingling: Anxiety affects the nervous system and can cause a numb or tingling sensation down your arms or legs.
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath: Changes in your breathing are common during anxiety. Often, people take shallow, quick breaths and may feel like they are struggling to breathe.
Emotional and psychological symptoms
Anxiety disorders may lead to uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. People often feel out of control with their anxiety symptoms and may feel anxious about possibly being exposed to triggers.
Here are some of the common emotional symptoms of anxiety (Chand, 2021):
- Fear of losing control: You may experience a fear of losing control, whether it’s control of your emotions or your body (like during a panic attack). This can lead to a persistent fear of the unknown.
- Intense worry or fear: Feeling extreme worry or fear is one of the most common anxiety symptoms. This can be fear about an emotion, person, situation, or the anticipation of an actual or potential event.
- Nervousness or feeling jittery: A nervous, jittery, unsteady feeling is common with anxiety. You may feel jumpy and on edge.
- Confusion or trouble focusing: Anxiety can make it difficult to focus or concentrate on your tasks for the day. It could also leave you feeling confused and make it difficult for you to complete your daily responsibilities.
- Poor memory: Sometimes, anxiety can affect your memory and may leave you feeling like you “blacked out” while anxious.
- Frightening or negative thoughts: Negative and worried thinking are common symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety can also trigger scary thoughts since the symptoms can mimic other medical conditions such as a heart attack.
- Feeling detached: Anxiety may lead to two different psychological states, called derealization and depersonalization. Derealization causes difficulty recognizing what’s real, making you feel disconnected from your surroundings. Depersonalization is the feeling of observing oneself from outside your own body or feeling like your thoughts/feelings don’t belong to you.
Anxiety can change how people act. The intense fear and worry can lead to behaviors to try to control your circumstances to avoid symptoms, avoid triggers, or change how you act in situations.
Do I have anxiety? Types of anxiety and how to treat it
Common behavioral signs of anxiety disorders include (Chand, 2021):
- Avoiding situations: Avoiding events or situations that lead to symptoms can be common. It can feel easier to avoid places that frequently cause symptoms to develop. You may often say no to events that would lead to anticipated anxiety in the days or weeks leading up to the event. This behavior can lead people to miss events they would like to be at because of their fear of their symptoms.
- Leaving when uncomfortable: The fear of situations can also compel people to leave events early in the hopes of ending their symptoms if they perceive the circumstance as the cause of their symptoms. This could make it more difficult for people to follow through on their goals or responsibilities because of their anxiety.
- Pacing: You may feel the urge to pace or move around while anxious. Since the nervous system releases more energy to allow you to fight or run away from danger, you may feel compelled to pace. Walking around may help to use some of the released energy, and frequent pacing could be a sign of anxiety.
- Restlessness: Anxiety may leave you feeling restless and like you need to do something. Some people busy themselves with cleaning, talking to people, watching TV, or other distractions from their restless feeling.
- Freezing: The intense feeling of anxiety and fear may leave some people feeling frozen or unable to do anything.
- Trouble talking: Anxiety may affect your ability to speak, leaving you unable to talk, stuttering, or stumbling over words.
How to reduce anxiety
Anxiety can affect your overall satisfaction with life and impact your ability to reach your goals. However, there are options to help you manage your symptoms and reduce your overall anxiety levels.
Medical treatment options for anxiety include medications and psychotherapy (Chand, 2021). A mental health professional can help you find the best medical treatment options for you to help with reducing your overall anxiety and cope with its symptoms.
You can also reduce your anxiety levels through lifestyle changes to help cope with symptoms.
Your healthcare provider may recommend antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to help manage your anxiety disorder. Medicines used to treat anxiety disorder include (Chand, 2021):
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Mild tranquilizers
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common type of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. CBT focuses on helping people find negative thinking patterns and beliefs that trigger symptoms and transition to more positive thoughts. It helps build coping skills and change behavior to better handle anxiety triggers (Chand, 2021).
EMDR therapy for anxiety, grief, and PTSD
Therapy is usually done in individual sessions, but it’s also available in group settings. Some people find support groups effective in helping them to understand their symptoms better and reduce their anxiety.
Adopting healthy habits may help you to reduce your overall anxiety. Some of these changes help minimize the amount of anxiety experienced. Others help build your ability to cope with symptoms.
Lifestyle changes to help manage anxiety include:
- Getting enough sleep: Trouble sleeping is associated with increased anxiety symptoms (Horenstein, 2019). Try to get better sleep by having a consistent sleep schedule and sleeping in a dark, quiet, cool room.
- Exercising frequently: Regular exercises can help to reduce anxiety symptoms (Aylett, 2018). Find activities you enjoy, try a group fitness class, walk regularly, and take the stairs to increase your activity levels.
- Practicing mindfulness meditation: Research shows meditation is good for your mental health and stress management. One study found that practicing mindfulness exercises helps increase positive thoughts and decreases anxiety symptoms (Thurston, 2017).
- Trying deep breathing exercises: Deep breathing exercises help reduce stress, improve mood, and boost attention (Ma, 2017). Practice taking deep breaths from your diaphragm (bottom of your rib cage) for a few minutes daily.
When to seek help
You don’t have to suffer in silence if anxiety is affecting your life. Some anxiety is a normal part of life. But if it causes distress or affects your ability to do what you want to do, talking to a mental health professional can help.
- Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1), 559. doi: 10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6048763/
- Chand SP, Marwaha R. (2021). Anxiety. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/
- Horenstein, A., Morrison, A. S., Goldin, P., Ten Brink, M., Gross, J. J., & Heimberg, R. G. (2019). Sleep quality and treatment of social anxiety disorder. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 32(4), 387–398. doi: 10.1080/10615806.2019.1617854. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6698895/
- Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., et al. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
- Thurston, M. D., Goldin, P., Heimberg, R., & Gross, J. J. (2017). Self-views in social anxiety disorder: The impact of CBT versus MBSR. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 47, 83–90. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.01.001. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5376221/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.