Understanding Anxiety: What it Is? Signs and Symptoms

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You’ve likely experienced something like this before: a racing heart, sweaty palms, nervous thoughts traveling faster than you can keep up with. Maybe you’re worrying about a big deadline at work, dreading an upcoming social situation, or anticipating an important conversation with a partner. 

Anxiety disorders are incredibly common. The mental health condition affects about one in three U.S. adults at some point in their lives. So what is anxiety, exactly?

Anxiety is different from intense fear. It doesn’t always have a clear, rational cause, and it doesn’t disappear once the original threat does. Most people feel anxiety or anxious feelings occasionally, but for people with an anxiety disorder, these feelings of intense anxiety become overwhelming and impact their daily lives. That’s why it’s important to learn the signs and symptoms of this mental health condition  for yourself to begin addressing the root of the problem—and to know when to seek help and anxiety treatment

What is anxiety?

The term “anxiety” can mean different things depending on how it’s used. In some contexts, it simply means a feeling of unease or nervousness. When speaking about mental health disorders, anxiety is characterized by frequent, uncontrollable, and often irrational worrying.

The key difference here is time. 

You may feel anxious for a brief period leading up to a big presentation at work, but people with clinical anxiety experience fear and worry on a regular basis over the course of weeks, months, or years. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—the main tool medical professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders—generalized anxiety is characterized by anxious thoughts that persist for at least six months.  

A few of the most common anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder – Like the name suggests, generalized anxiety is a pervasive disorder that affects most aspects of a person’s life. People with this disorder experience constant and compulsive worrying. Often, these anxious thoughts are tied to seemingly mundane problems that don’t warrant this response, but other times, it’s difficult to pinpoint their exact cause. 
  • Panic disorder – If someone has frequent, disruptive panic attacks, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder. Panic attacks are intense manifestations of anxiety and fear. A panic attack can come on suddenly, sometimes out of nowhere, or because of a specific trigger. Panic attacks can be particularly scary because of how they affect the body. They can cause heart palpitations and chest pain that sometimes mimic a heart attack. 
  • Social anxiety disorder – This disorder is specific to a social situation, but since these situations are difficult to avoid, it can be disruptive to sustaining a sense of normalcy. People with social anxiety disorder fear being judged by others, leading to overwhelming feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness, and they may develop socially avoidant tendencies.
  • Agoraphobia – This phobia is often simplified as the fear of leaving one’s home, but it’s actually a broader fear of any situation that causes feelings of distress and helplessness. Causes of stress include crowds, enclosed spaces, or public transportation. Only people with more intense agoraphobia or intense fear will avoid all stressful situations by staying in their homes.  

If your symptoms don’t neatly align with a specific disorder, you can still be diagnosed and treated for anxiety if it causes significant disruptions in your daily life. 

Even mild forms of anxiety can have an adverse effect on your physical and mental health, which is why it’s essential that you learn how to identify the signs, as well as when and where you’re most likely to experience the effects of stress on the body and mind.

Common signs and symptoms

Though anxiety is considered a mental health disorder, it’s not all in your head. 

Anxiety can produce a wide range of symptoms that manifest in both your mind and body. In other words, a racing heart and a tight chest can be just as indicative of anxiety as intrusive thoughts and feelings of dread. 

The most common physical symptoms include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Heavy breathing
  • Numbness and muscle tension
  • Nausea or gastrointestinal issues
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Shaking, weakness, or fatigue 

Defining the mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety can be difficult since you might describe feelings differently than someone else. That said, here’s what people usually experience:

  • Feeling nervous or on edge
  • Feeling like something bad is about to happen
  • Having difficulty concentrating or controlling panicked thoughts

Anxiety can also impact the way you make decisions and interact with the world. You might avoid certain situations that cause intense anxiety or develop unhealthy ticks or habits that aim to relieve anxiety in the short run.

It can be hard to focus on negative thoughts and feelings in the moment. But by being observant and in tune with your body and mind, you can identify anxiety symptoms with more ease, and find ways to alleviate them.

Recognizing anxiety in different contexts

It’s important to find out what causes anxiety for you. That way, you can learn the specific signs and prevent anxious feelings from building into something overwhelming and disruptive. Anxiety triggers can include anything from specific places to stressful situations, to certain anniversaries or times of the year. 

While triggers are unique to you, there are certain contexts that induce anxiety more than others: 

  • Work and school – These environments are particularly known for triggering stress and worrying thoughts. Expectations can be high, and work/peer relationships can be difficult to navigate. You may be afraid to make mistakes and pass up new opportunities or promotions, which can negatively affect your career and finances. 
  • Social situations – You likely interact with others every day, whether at work, at the grocery store, or with family members. If you have anxiety, these situations become rife with self-consciousness, fear, and embarrassment, and you may try to avoid them altogether. But it’s difficult to alleviate anxiety this way and can increase feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Relationships – Any significant relationship in your life can potentially cause anxiety, whether it’s with a romantic partner, a friend or family member, or a coworker. You might worry about embarrassing yourself in front of them or saying something that will hurt their feelings. But relationships are important for your overall well-being, and can support you during times of stress and anxiety, so pushing them away can be harmful in the long run. 

The thing about modern-day anxiety is that it’s usually irrational: you know your family loves you, and you know you’re not being judged by your coworkers, but anxiety tries to convince you otherwise. If left unchecked, anxiety can have serious effects on your quality of life.  

Anxiety’s impact on daily life

Anxiety makes even mundane tasks like running errands or scheduling appointments seem terrifying and impossible to complete. Constant worrying and obsessive thought spirals suck your time and energy away from your work, and nagging fear and embarrassment isolate you from people you love. 

Even if you’re able to push through your anxiety, you have to work twice as hard as those without it. 

Anxiety comes with its own health concerns, too. People with anxiety are known to develop other medical issues such as:

  • Insomnia and other sleeping problems
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Chronic pain
  • Substance abuse
  • Other mental health disorders, like depression

The outlook may seem bleak, but there’s good news: anxiety is one of the most treatable mental health disorders, especially if you get help early on. 

When to seek help

Recognizing the ways anxiety manifests for you is an important skill to hone, but this alone won’t always alleviate your symptoms. 

Some people only experience anxiety occasionally or in certain contexts, and quick fixes, like deep breathing exercises or positive affirmations, are enough to calm them down. For others, though, anxiety is pervasive and difficult to manage. It’s time to seek help and anxiety treatment if:

  • Your anxiety significantly disrupts your daily life
  • You feel out of control due to anxious thoughts and feelings
  • You’re misusing alcohol or other substances
  • You feel depressed or suicidal 

If anxiety is holding you back from living up to your life’s full potential, a medical professional can help you move forward. There are a variety of treatment options that can target your anxiety in multiple ways. The most common ones, often used in conjunction, are:

  • Therapy – The types of therapy typically used to treat anxiety disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. CBT helps you understand the sources of your anxiety and how it affects you, while exposure therapy allows you to confront your fears in a safe and controlled way.
  • Medication – Anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and beta blockers are all commonly used to treat both mental and physical anxiety symptoms. It might take time, but your doctor can help you find the right treatment plan for your specific condition.

When anxiety is in charge, it can be hard to see things clearly. 

That’s why you need a strong support system of qualified doctors and loved ones. They can help you see your worries from a different angle and begin to work through them, so you can spend more time enjoying life through all its highs and lows. 

Understanding anxiety: more awareness leads to more relief

By familiarizing yourself with anxiety symptoms and treatment options, you’ve taken the first step towards finding relief—and the first step is always the hardest. 

At Apollo Neuro, it’s our mission to develop effective, innovative technology that allows you to live a calmer and fuller life. From sleep, to stress, to performance, the Apollo wearable is designed to bring out your best self.

Discover expert tips and tricks to reduce its effects and learn how to cope with your anxiety, and learn how an Apollo wearable may be your key to immediate and lasting relief.