Anxiety affects over 40 million people over the age of 18 in the United States, making it the most common mental disorder. Marked by extreme fear, uncertainty, feelings of anxiousness, and behavior disturbances, people who experience anxiety are often worried about the future and how it may impact them.1 Understanding symptoms related to anxiety is necessary to help identify the condition, guide treatment, and establish support for individuals suffering from anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are treatable; therefore, symptoms of anxiety can improve with effective treatment, which typically includes a comprehensive approach of therapy and medication.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Everyone’s experience with anxiety is unique, but there are certain symptoms frequently experienced by individuals with anxiety.
The most common symptoms of anxiety include but are not limited to:
- Constant fear that something bad is going to happen
- Difficulty sleeping
- Excessive worrying
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle tension
Symptoms of anxiety can impact a person’s life at home, work, and school. As symptoms progress, relationships may suffer as a desire to withdraw and isolate from the outside world grows. People with severe anxiety may lose the desire to care for their own personal well-being and struggle to complete even basic hygiene needs.
Because there are many symptoms of anxiety, two people could have vastly unique experiences, even though they have the same diagnosis. One person could be irritable and constantly worry, and another person could experience difficulty sleeping and heart palpitations. Symptoms and risk factors for anxiety may be impacted by various elements, including type of anxiety, gender, and age.
While most people recognize the negative symptoms of anxiety, it can be easy to overlook the potential benefits of anxiety, including increased productivity, better organization, and an avoidance of potentially dangerous situations.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Characterized by classic anxiety symptoms lasting longer than six months (e.g., difficulty concentrating, constant worry and stress, irritability, exhaustion, sleep difficulty, restlessness, and muscle tension), generalized anxiety disorder is one of the most commonly experienced types of anxiety. However, there are several types of anxiety based on one’s symptoms and the duration of the symptoms presented.
Panic Attack Symptoms
People who suffer from panic disorder experience recurrent panic attacks unexpectedly or induced by a specific trigger. These attacks often include an intense feeling of impending doom, rapid heartbeat, and sweating. Panic attacks happen suddenly and reach the peak of the attack within minutes.
Symptoms of Other Types of Anxiety
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, types of anxiety include:2
- Agoraphobia: Fear and avoidance of places that might induce a panic attack, or would prove unsafe should a panic attack occur. With agoraphobia, one might also fear being alone in a panic-inducing place.
- Specific Phobias: People who have a specific phobia may experience intense anxiety and fear about a specific animal, place, or thing.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia): Individuals who suffer from social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of situations that are social or performance-related. Those with social anxiety disorder often feel that their performance is being negatively evaluated. The constant worry may cause people to avoid social situations that they would like to engage in.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder: Individuals who suffer from separation anxiety have an excessive worry or feel physical discomfort when separated from loved ones, concerned that harm may come to their loved one, they avoid separation or avoid being alone.
What Does an Anxiety Condition Feel Like?
Having an anxiety condition can be emotionally and mentally draining making it challenging to function on a day-to-day basis. Although everyone’s experience with anxiety may vary, it still manifests in your thoughts, feelings, and body.
Feelings & Thoughts
People with chronic anxiety often worry excessively about everyday situations. They tend to frequently and uncontrollably “get inside their head” which only makes them feel more nervous and on edge.
Feelings and thoughts of those with anxiety might include:12
- Feeling annoyed, irritated, and easily frustrated even about trivial things
- Catastrophic outlook which creates intense dread about something terrible happening
- Brain fog causing inability to organize thoughts, problem solve, make decisions, and even speak on occasion
- Having racing or intrusive thoughts that are hard to stop or control
- Overanalyzing just about anything or misinterpreting situations
- Feeling like all eyes are on them and they’ll be negatively judged
The physical symptoms of an anxiety condition can differ depending on the person and the type of anxiety disorder. However, the symptoms below commonly occur to varying degrees to people with anxiety:12
- Tightness in the chest
- Shallow breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea, upset stomach, or “butterflies” in the stomach
- Body tension—sometimes all over, other times in specific areas of the body
- Feeling tired or fatigued
- Difficulty swallowing or feeling like you’re choking when eating
- Trouble falling asleep or constantly waking up at night
- Loss of appetite or eating/snacking too much
Severe Anxiety Symptoms
Severe anxiety symptoms can often surface from untreated or unmanaged anxiety. In turn the anxiety becomes more extreme and more debilitating.12
- A sense of detachment from yourself and reality (dissociation)
- Extreme fear of dying or obsessively worrying about getting physically injured
- Feeling out of control, or like you’re “going crazy”
- Socially isolating or shutting down
- Self-destructive behaviors like excessive drinking or using drugs
- Suicidal thoughts
Do I Have Anxiety or Am I Just Feeling Anxious?
It’s normal to feel anxious when faced with challenges or stressful situations, but sometimes it can be hard to tell or even notice if your anxious feelings are becoming chronic.
If you’re unsure if you have anxiety or you’re just feeling anxious, asking yourself the following questions might help:
- Am I frequently worrying about multiple things, situations, or activities?
- Are my anxious feelings too intense in comparison to the actual circumstance or stressor?
- Do my anxious feelings linger even after the problem/issue has been resolved?
- Do I frequently experience intrusive thoughts that cause me to get anxious and can’t brush them off no matter how hard I try or how irrational they may be?
- Are these feelings of anxiety making it difficult to do my job, take care of things at home, and/or get along with other people?
- Have I noticed that this has been going on for a while (at least 6 months)?
When anxious feelings are intense, recurrent, and disrupting important life areas, you could potentially have an anxiety condition. Anxiety disorders tend to get worse over time, so it is critical that you seek professional help to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. Even in mild cases of anxiety, going to therapy can still be beneficial because it can help you gain effective coping strategies to better deal with symptoms and enhance your overall well being.
Outward Signs of Anxiety
The signs associated with anxiety vary from person to person. However, common signs include constant worry that impacts daily life, feelings of restlessness, irritability, changes in sleeping patterns, and physical symptoms that were not previously noticed (e.g. stomach problems, headaches, muscle tension).
The signs may become increasingly worse with time if not treated and managed. Therefore, it is imperative at all stages of life to get the proper treatment when signs of anxiety present in children, adolescents, adults, and older adults. The signs may differ from person to person but should be taken seriously across all populations. Some anxiety is normal, but when it begins to impact one’s day to day activities, it can decrease productivity.
Sign of Anxiety in Women
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, anxiety impacts over 18% of people in the United States. However, women experience anxiety at nearly twice the rate of males.3
Signs of Anxiety in Men
According to the National Health Interview Survey, about 9 percent of men reported feelings of anxiety or depression. However, only about 41 percent of that population sought treatment (therapy or medication) for their symptoms.4
Among men who felt anxious or depressed on a daily basis, younger men aged 18–44 (39.2%) were as likely as older men aged 45 and over (42.3%) to have taken medication for these feelings or to have seen a mental health professional in the previous 12 months. According to Lopez and colleagues, men with generalized anxiety disorder have higher rates of alcohol and drug use disorder and nicotine dependence.5
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Children are likely to exhibit anxiety symptoms through behavioral changes, such as clinginess, school absences, temper tantrums, crying, or changes in speech.6 However, children experiencing anxiety may also experience physical symptoms similar to adults, such as heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and irritability. Family members and school personnel are often the first to notice these types of changes in children.
Signs of Anxiety in Teens
The symptoms of anxiety will vary from teen to teen.1 However, common symptoms include constant worrying, a sense of restlessness, and excessive stress. Parents/caregivers may also notice teenagers mentioning more physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or muscle tension.
Teenagers may also experiment with substances to help decrease symptoms and to relieve the stress associated with anxiety.7 Due to the importance of the teen years for social and emotional development, adults must be cognizant of possible anxiety symptoms in teens, or any behavioral/physical changes.
Signs of Anxiety in Older Adults and Seniors
With the exception of general anxiety disorder, anxiety disorders are less common in people over 65 years of age.8 Approximately 10-20 percent of older adults are impacted by anxiety.9
However, there are often undiagnosed and untreated cases with older adults. Doctors and these individuals may not observe symptoms of anxiety due to other symptoms that older adults may be experiencing from medication and other health concerns. It is common to experience feelings of anxiety in the wake of the significant life changes aging brings. However, when anxiety begins to impact one’s everyday life activities, this is when extra attention must be given, especially for older adults.
Examples of How Anxiety Presents
There are various ways that anxiety may present in different people, as previously described. However, when assessing the symptoms, mental health providers also evaluate the severity and duration of the symptoms reported by the client. Described below are examples of how anxiety may present, as well as the treatment options that could possibly work best to support individuals in a therapeutic setting.
How Mild Anxiety May Present
Experiencing occasional anxiety is normal for most people and is very common. Nearly everyone experiences anxiety at some point during their lifetime. Someone with mild symptoms may experience classic symptoms of anxiety, like restlessness or sleep difficulty, but with little difference in their day-to-day productivity.
An individual in treatment for mild anxiety symptoms may be taught healthy coping strategies to deal with the stressors that are causing the anxiety. These healthy coping mechanisms commonly include relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, meditation).
How Moderate Anxiety May Present
Moderate anxiety presents with classic symptoms of anxiety but causes a notable impairment in daily activities. In addition to typical symptoms, moderate anxiety can also present with panic attacks and include physical symptoms, such as sweaty palms, racing heart, shortness of breath, etc.
Individuals in treatment for moderate anxiety may be taught healthy coping strategies similar to mild anxiety treatment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help the client focus on effective ways to cope with stressors is often utilized as well. Medication may be indicated depending on how disruptive symptoms are to daily life.
How Severe Anxiety May Present
Severe anxiety is a more intense presentation of classic anxiety symptoms and can be debilitating. Symptoms that are often associated with severe anxiety include, but are not limited to, changes in emotions, withdrawal from family and friends, school refusal, anxiety-related weight loss, and work avoidance. Panic attacks can also be present.
When symptoms are severe, treatments that may be considered are frequent talk therapy like CBT and medication to help decrease symptoms and improve daily function.
Treatment for Anxiety Symptoms
It is never too early to get help with symptoms related to anxiety and other mental health conditions. Getting help early while symptoms are mild can resolve the problem and prevent the disorder from causing significant impairment in a person’s everyday life. On the other end of the spectrum, people should never give up on the idea of recovery, since even the most severe symptoms can respond well to effective treatment.
Because treatment for anxiety can be complex, it is imperative that individuals suffering from anxiety seek treatment from a professional (e.g., counselor, psychologist, social worker, primary care physician, or psychiatrist) who is experienced in treating anxiety-related conditions. Your doctor can determine if physical symptoms experienced such as headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations are related to anxiety or another medical condition.
In counseling, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is commonly used to help support individuals who are experiencing anxiety due to positive treatment results evidenced in current research. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps explore thinking patterns and identify distortions in thinking that may be causing some of the anxiety. Medications, including anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, are also used to treat anxiety in collaboration with healthy lifestyle changes. Speak to your doctor about the effects of anxiety medication to determine whether it’s right for you.
How to Manage Anxiety Symptoms
By modifying their thoughts and behaviors, each person has the ability to make their symptoms of anxiety better or worse.
They may not be able to resolve symptoms completely, but a person suffering from anxiety can improve their life by:
- Becoming familiar with signs and symptoms related to anxiety: The condition can be complex and challenging at managing. Therefore, becoming familiar with signs, symptoms, and healthy ways to cope are important.
- Leaving time for pleasure: Socializing with friends, watching an enjoyable movie, reading a book, taking a bath, and eating a good meal are all pleasurable activities that can help you to relax.
- Prioritizing physical health during transitions: If one is suffering from anxiety, it is imperative to take measures to have a healthy diet, increase physical activity, and get an adequate amount of sleep.
- Seeking out treatment and following the treatment plan provided by your mental health provider: When in treatment, your mental health provider will create a treatment plan. It is crucial to participate in this process and follow-through on strategies discussed in treatment.
- Surrounding themselves with a strong support system: Those with anxiety should seek out people in their support system who can support them through their journey.
Unhealthy Strategies to Avoid
Finding healthy coping skills is key, but avoiding unhealthy coping skills can be even more critical. Unhealthy coping skills are challenging to spot at first because they often appear helpful and effective as they offer quick relief, but in time, they lead to unwanted results.
Unhealthy coping skills to avoid include but are not limited to:
- Avoiding symptoms through activities: Everyone needs a break from the constant feeling of worry, and watching TV, playing video games, or scrolling through social media can supply a sense of relief. However, if one is suffering from anxiety symptoms, it is imperative not to use these activities to avoid dealing with symptoms related to anxiety.
- Spending too much time with other people who constantly worry.
- Using alcohol and other recreational drugs: Substance abuse may initially seem to offer relief, but can lead to increased symptoms and new problems like poor finances, relationship conflict, and legal troubles.
While these lifestyle changes may be helpful, mental health treatment is key in addressing symptoms related to anxiety. If you or someone you know is concerned about symptoms related to anxiety, seeking professional help from a mental health provider is highly recommended. Licensed professional counselors, social workers, psychologists, or Primary Care Providers, Psychiatrists are able to determine whether a person is experiencing anxiety and the best methods of treatment