Symptoms & Signs of Anxiety
Anyone can feel anxious in a situation that seems dangerous or arouses fear or uncertainty. For most individuals, this anxiousness fades quickly when disagreeable situations end and does not interfere significantly with the normal course of everyday life. However, some individuals develop feelings of anxiety in situations that most people would find completely nonthreatening. In certain cases, these feelings grow strong enough to cause serious personal distress. People who experience such problems may qualify for an official diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Let’s take a look at the symptoms and signs of commonplace anxiety, as well as specific anxiety disorders.
The term anxiety is used to describe a range of unpleasant emotions, including worry, fear, dread, nervousness, apprehension, self-consciousness and agitation. In context, these feelings can act as completely appropriate responses to many of life’s common ups and downs. For instance, you may rightly feel fear in a physically dangerous situation. Worry is an understandable response to many situations, including such things as money troubles or relationship problems. You may feel nervous before a public speaking event or a big meeting. In the aftermath a major traumatic event, you may experience temporary symptoms of extreme anxiety, as well as sadness and other intense emotions.
The American Psychiatric Association officially recognizes eight primary anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobia, panic attack, panic disorder, selective mutism and separation anxiety disorder. There are also four secondary conditions in this category. Each anxiety disorder produces its own specific signs and symptoms. However, all of them have a negative impact on affected individuals that’s serious enough to interfere with daily life and diminish a lasting sense of well-being.
Some emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety are common to multiple types of anxiety disorder. Shared emotional issues can include:
- A tendency to expect the worst in a given situation
- Feelings of agitation or restlessness
- Dread of current or upcoming circumstances
- Jumpiness or nervousness
Shared physical issues can include:
- A rapid heartbeat
- Stomach distress
- Unusually high sweat output
- Muscle spasms or tremors
Symptoms of Specific Disorders
There’s a difference between everyday anxiety and an anxiety disorder. It’s normal to feel anxious now and then. People with anxiety disorders have such powerful and frequent feelings of fear and worry that they interfere with daily life. They may withdraw from relationships and social gatherings. People with anxiety disorders may experience such dread that they stay home from work or school.
The major types of anxiety disorder are:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder — People affected by this condition worry excessively about commonplace events and situations. These worries resist attempts at emotional control and appear repeatedly throughout the day, even in seemingly benign or harmless circumstances.
Social Anxiety Disorder — This condition is also known as social phobia. Affected individuals feel an intense fear of judgment or scrutiny in social situations or when called upon to participate in any sort of performance. This fear goes well beyond the scope of everyday shyness.
Agoraphobia — People with this disorder experience feelings of helplessness or extreme fear when they find themselves in situations or locations they can’t easily escape. Situations that can act as a trigger include being in crowded environments and being alone while outdoors. Locations that can act as a trigger include elevators and bridges.
Specific Phobia — People affected by this condition feel irrational fear only when in a certain situation or location, or when in the presence of certain things or animals. Potential sources of a phobic reaction include high places, confined spaces, germs, dogs or other animals, buses, airplanes and doctors’ offices.
Panic Attack and Panic Disorder — A panic attack or anxiety attack is an unexpected bout of terror that can produce symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, chest pain, lightheadedness and hyperventilation. Some affected individuals experience only isolated or occasional attacks. However, others experience repeated attacks, and therefore qualify for a diagnosis of panic disorder.
Selective Mutism — This disorder typically appears in young children. Affected individuals fail to speak in certain situations, but speak readily in others. Symptoms often appear in school and disappear at home or in other unstructured or informal settings.
Separation Anxiety Disorder — This disorder also typically appears in young children, occurring most often between the ages of 7 and 9. It is marked by an age-inappropriate fear of losing sight of (or contact with) a parent or other accustomed figure, including other family members.
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
Mental health disorders like anxiety have both environmental and biological components. You may be prone to anxiety due to genetics and the way your brain produces chemicals. Life experiences like exposure to trauma also contribute to anxiety disorders. Genetics plays a part in about 30% to 40% of anxiety disorders. Women are more likely than men to suffer from the condition.
Anxiety researchers developed an ABC Model for understanding anxiety disorders. The ABC Model explains how alarms, beliefs and coping strategies interact in anxiety:
Alarms (A) – This is how you physically react to a stressful situation. It’s how the brain sends signals to the body about the perceived danger.
Beliefs (B) – You react to stress based on how your body processes sensory input. Other factors include previous stressful experiences and your cultural and social background. People with anxiety disorders tend to be hypersensitive. They live in a heightened state of awareness that makes them exaggerate danger or threat. This can cloud their judgement and decision-making ability.
Coping strategies (C) – Thoughts or behaviors aimed at helping you reduce stressors are coping strategies. These are often unhealthy or dysfunctional in people with anxiety disorders.
People who don’t have anxiety disorders still experience the ABC’s of anxiety. The difference is they have more adaptive responses. They still feel stressed or afraid, but are better able to deal with anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may try to self-medicate stress with:
- Alcohol or other drugs
- Obsessive thinking
- Assuming the worst-case scenario
National Institute of Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders
National Alliance on Mental Illness: Anxiety Disorders