The body’s natural response to danger is anxiety. It’s that alarm when you think you’re being threatened or you’re facing a tense situation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either — A little bit of anxiety can push you to problem-solve, drive you to get excited about something and help you stay focused, aware of what’s going on. That’s all well and good, but a lot of the time anxiety isn’t your friend — it can quickly go from something productive and inspiring to the absolute nightmare people with anxiety disorders suffer through.
Speaking of anxiety disorders, there are plenty to talk about and they’re all very different things to different people. While one person might know when an anxiety attack is coming on, like me when my hands go numb after talking about money for too long, somebody else’s panic attacks might appear to be random. Where I’m almost constantly worried about something, and my anxiety attacks tend to be a build-up of energy amassed slowly over time, somebody else could be afraid of one or more particular things, like driving or walking near traffic, and only those situations will bring on such a heightened state of anxiety. Regardless of what form the anxiety/panic disorder takes, they share one common characteristic — they’re going to make you more afraid of or worried about something that many other people aren’t actually threatened by.
Common Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
There’s more to a panic attack than just what’s going on in your head. Fear and anxiety have very pronounced physical responses as well — the core of your worries might not be realistic, but the sensations in your body certainly are. Because of that, these symptoms are often mistaken for other, usually worse physical illnesses and a lot of people will make a few trips to the hospital or their family doctor before an anxiety disorder is properly diagnosed because of the range of symptoms being so similar to those of other diseases.
The physical signs include, but aren’t limited to:
- Frequent washroom trips
- Being short of breath
- Stomach upset
- Muscle tension
- General fatigue
Common Emotional/Behavior-Based Symptoms of Anxiety
Aside from irrational, excessive worrying or fears, here are some other common symptoms of anxiety that are rooted more in how you feel mentally:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing thoughts
- Imagining the worst
- Being tense
- Being overly vigilant for signs of danger
- Mind feeling blank or suddenly empty
Anxiety and panic attacks are episodes of wild fear, and usually happen without much warning. There’s sometimes a clear trigger — like my mounting panic when I have to discuss any kind of finance — but in many cases, they happen seemingly out of the blue.
To say anxiety attacks aren’t fun is an obvious understatement. They’re usually at their worst about ten minutes in, and generally don’t last for more than a half hour, but the fear is so intense that you might think you’re going to die or lose control of yourself within that span of time. It’s miserable and seems inescapable, but it will pass.
From a doctor’s standpoint, an anxiety or panic attack means your heart is racing, you’re sweating, shaking, feeling nauseated, experiencing numbness, shortness of breath, potentially chest pains, fear of dying, a sense of imminent danger—it’s any number of different unpleasant sensations. It can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack, but it’s nothing more than a passing grip of feelings. Does that mean it’s not dangerous? Maybe not physically, but depending on how you handle them, these attacks can be detrimental to your mind’s functioning. If you allow yourself to avoid the things that cause you anxiety, your symptoms will only worsen as your body gets used to the connection between panic and that situation. It quickly becomes a vicious cycle that only leads to more panic attacks and perpetuates the fear you’re feeling.
Symptoms of an actual attack often include:
- Feeling detached or unreal, almost depersonalized
- A sense of unmanageable panic
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pains
- Feeling as though you’re about to pass out
- Feeling like you’re choking or gagging
- Trouble breathing
- Hot flashes
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are six main types of official anxiety disorders, and each has its own individual profile of symptoms. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobia, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People suffering from generalized anxiety disorder have fear and worries to the point that they take away from their daily activities, or find themselves constantly troubled by a sense of impending doom. They feel anxious almost all the time and may not even realize why, and they often experience chronic physical symptoms like upset stomach, insomnia, tiredness and restlessness.
Sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder experience unwanted behavioural impulses and unwanted thoughts that feel impossible to control. OCD folks are bothered by constant obsessing, reoccurring worries that often spur checking behaviors (I check windows and doors three times each before bed or leaving home), and what feel like uncontrollable compulsions to perform certain tasks, like the ‘classic’ case of somebody who obsessively washes their hands.
Phobias are exaggerated, often unrealistic fears of specific activities, items or situations that actually present very little real danger. Common phobias include fear of flying, fear of spiders, snakes, mice, dogs and other animals and fear of heights. When a phobia is severe, you’ll find yourself taking extreme measures to avoid whatever it is you fear, but this only makes the phobia stronger. Never feed fear with avoidance — it might feel best, but it’s the worst thing you can do.
If you have a panic disorder, you’re likely experiencing repeated, uncontrollable, unexpected panic attacks accompanied by the crippling fear of your next panic attack. It’s often accompanied by agoraphobia — the fear of being in a place you can’t easily escape or get help if an attack were to occur — and leads to a lot of avoidance, particularly when it comes to leaving the house, public places or any situations that might elevate anxiety.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs after a generally traumatic event and acts like a panic attack that just never stops. The main symptoms are hyper vigilance, nightmares or flashbacks, avoidance and withdrawing from other people. It’s unfortunately very common among soldiers and first-responders, but certainly isn’t limited to just those classes of individuals. Anybody may experience PTSD after a truly traumatic event, and as with all mental health, each case needs to be approached very seriously.
The most common type of social anxiety is stage fright, but it gets worse. People experiencing social anxiety disorder have a fear of being humiliated publicly or being seen in a negative light by other people. It’s often seen as ‘just’ shyness, but even extroverts can experience social anxiety. When social anxiety is at its worst, sufferers will avoid social situations completely and shut off from other people. Again, avoidance is ultimately the worst way to deal with it.
Keep in mind that these are just a few symptoms of each disorder. These are very broad, different issues and self-diagnosing based on a cursory look at some information on the internet isn't a good plan. At the end of the day, only your doctor can truly diagnose an anxiety disorder, and while there are a lot of self-help options out there that can be incredibly effective, if your anxiety is getting in the way of your daily activities, you’ve likely got a problem that needs to be addressed by a professional. And only a professional can conclude whether your symptoms are based in anxiety or another illness, so it’s important to get checked out medically if you’re experiencing any of this.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about any over the counter supplements, drugs or herbal remedies you might be taking to cope with your symptoms, and work with him/her to find a therapist in your area that specializes in the treatment of anxiety-based disorders. Cognitive behavioral and exposure therapies are both incredibly effective, with and without medication, in treating anxiety disorders, as mentioned in Top 3 Therapy Techniques for Panic and Anxiety.
You can find further reading on anxiety disorders and more at the following resources: