Identifying Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety Disorders

Identifying Symptoms of Anxiety

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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the most common source of mental health issues, bar none.  Symptoms of anxiety include excessive and persistent worry, fear, and apprehension. It goes beyond the normal experience of stress and can significantly impact an individual’s daily life. Fear is the emotional reaction we have to danger. Likewise, anxiety is the apprehension people experience thinking about possible future danger.

Anxiety and fear are natural responses that have kept us safe from real danger throughout human evolution. A life without any fear and anxiety probably would not last long. Fear brings on the “fight-or-flight” response. An elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, tensed muscles, wide open eyes, and heightened senses ready the body for an encounter with danger. These responses served humans well when our lives were threatened on a daily basis by predators and other threats in the environment. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a broader and more generalized sense of fear that often lacks a specific trigger. While fear is typically linked to a specific object or situation, anxiety can be present without an identifiable cause or may be disproportionate to the perceived threat.

However, now we live relatively safe lives and lack many of the natural threats in the world that our predecessors feared, but we still have the predisposition to be wary. Most of the time we have been able to adapt. We know that the people at our new job are not out to get us and that leaving the home is perfectly safe. But for some people, a combination of powerful genetics and the right environment can prime the natural fear responses to react to things that are really quite safe.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety manifests through a range of symptoms that can be categorized into two main groups: mental symptoms and physical symptoms. It’s important to note that not everyone with anxiety will experience all of these symptoms, and the severity can vary from person to person.

Anxiety has a number of hallmark signs and symptoms that people with these disorders display.  These fit into two large categories: physical and mental.

Mental symptoms of anxiety:

  1. Excessive worry: Persistent and uncontrollable concerns about various aspects of life, such as work, relationships, health, or future events.
  2. Racing thoughts: Having a rapid, uncontrollable stream of anxious, obsessive ideas, quickly jumping from one to another.
  3. Restlessness: Feeling tense, agitated, or unable to relax. Trouble staying calm.
  4. Irritability: Being easily irritable, having a low tolerance for frustration, and experiencing mood swings.
  5. Difficulty concentrating: Finding it challenging to focus on tasks due to racing thoughts or preoccupation with worries.
  6. Fear of losing control: Intense fear of losing control over oneself or a situation. Sensation that one’s thoughts are running wild.
  7. Trouble sleeping: Having issues falling or staying asleep, often disturbed by nightmares related to anxiety.

Physical symptoms of anxiety:

  1. Rapid heart rate: Experiencing a fast or pounding heartbeat or an irregular heartbeat.
  2. Shortness of breath: Feeling breathless or experiencing a smothering sensation, often accompanied by a feeling of tightness in the chest.
  3. Muscle tension: Experiencing muscle tension, tightness, or feeling physically “wound up.” This can lead to muscle aches, headaches, or jaw clenching.
  4. Fatigue: Feeling tired or lacking energy, even without engaging in physically or mentally exhausting activities.
  5. Gastrointestinal problems: Experiencing digestive issues such as stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, an upset stomach or dry mouth.
  6. Sweating: Excessive sweating, often in the hands, armpits, back and forehead, and especially in stressful situations.
  7. Dizziness or lightheadedness: Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or experiencing a sense of unsteadiness.
  8. Numbness or tingling: Feeling odd physical sensations throughout the body, most commonly in the hands and feet.

What about panic attacks?

Panic attacks are intense episodes of sudden and overwhelming fear. While anxiety symptoms are often present in various situations, panic attacks tend to be more acute and episodic.  While panic attacks usually happen in the context of existing anxiety disorders, they can happen in anyone. They are extremely distressing and can have a major impact on a person’s mental health.

Panic attack symptoms

Panic attacks subject people to a number of debilitating symptoms. People experience a pounding, racing heart and shortness of breath. They feel extremely shaky, their entire bodies trembling and sweating. Panic attacks bring dizziness and a very disturbing feeling of choking or suffocation. People feel a sense of impending doom. They are intensely afraid, but may not know of what. Thoughts race out of control. Cognitive symptoms can involve racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, and a distorted perception of reality.

Panic attacks often come without warning or trigger (they can even wake people from sleep).  They can last for a few minutes to an hour. They can become a vicious spiral, too. The fear of a future panic attack causes even more anxiety. People become preoccupied with the fear of having another attack. This can result in avoidance behaviors, where people start avoiding situations or places that they associate with previous panic attacks. This can greatly limit their daily activities and quality of life.

Panic attacks are the hallmark feature of Panic Disorder. However, they also occur in other anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder, or Specific Phobia. Understanding and addressing panic attacks are crucial in managing anxiety disorders effectively. Treatment approaches may include therapy, medication, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle changes. These can help people regain control over their lives and reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

References

Exposure Therapy for Anxiety in Children

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