It’s that pit in your stomach that feels heavier and heavier. The endless loop of scary thoughts. And the rapid-fire beating of your heart. Anxiety symptoms are hard to miss since they not only take over our mind, but are often reflected in our bodies, too. Most people will experience some bout of this all-too-common mental health condition at least once in their life, if not many times. To help manage anxious feelings, find solid ground, and ultimately feel better, it’s important to recognize and understand anxiety symptoms and their sources. We chatted with mental health experts for their advice on recognizing the most obvious signs of anxiety—which can help provide a smoother road to recovery.
What is anxiety?
Unlike depression, which is often rooted in thoughts of the past, anxiety is a future-oriented emotion (although these two mental health issues can often feed off of each other in a vicious cycle). Anxiety is a worry about something that hasn’t happened yet—or may never happen, says Crystal Bradshaw, LPC, a licensed professional counselor. “You can think of it as an early warning system, designed to get your attention and signal that something is off,” Bradshaw explains. Though anxiety is often a negative feeling that creates unnecessary fretting and at times panic, it can also serve a purpose when we’re in physical danger. “Another way to look at it is as a type of fear, whose purpose is to keep you alive. Many times, people ignore it, and when they do their anxiety builds,” she says.
How common is anxiety?
Before you give yourself a hard time about feeling off-balance, Bradshaw says that anxiety is very normal. While some experience anxiety more severely or frequently others, anxiety symptoms usually stem from huge life changes, hormonal shifts, and other factors that can feel beyond our control. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that nearly 40 million people (18 percent) will battle an anxiety disorder every year. The World Health Organization (WHO) says one in 13 people globally suffer from anxiety. To overcome this common diagnosis, Bradshaw says we need a shift in perception. If we view anxiety as an asset that can help us read and gauge ourselves, others, and situations, we will become more comfortable when feelings bubble up. “Your anxiety will tell you where to focus your energy,” she says. “Don’t ignore it—listen to it.”
What are some common symptoms of anxiety?
When going through an anxious episode, it’s helpful to figure out the root cause of what’s bringing these emotions to the forefront. As you experience anxiety symptoms, Bradshaw says it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like, “Why does my chest feel tight?” and, “Why is my heart racing?” to bring you back to the present in order to address your anxious thoughts directly. Here, some of the most common signs of anxiety you shouldn’t ignore.
Withdrawing from friends.
One of the first responses to anxiety symptoms is pulling away from people you love. Oftentimes this is one attempt to feel safe and feel more in control, Bradshaw says. Not wanting to spend time with your friends or partner could be evidence that you’re using all of your mental energy to contain what’s going on—our anxious thoughts. You’re likely distancing yourself from the present, and mentally and emotionally exhausted by trying to keep it together.
From a logical perspective, you may recognize anxious thoughts as just that—worries circulating in your brain, but not your actual reality. Even so, Schewitz says many people will feel like these intrusive worries are taking over their mind to a point where they can’t control them. You might even have rituals or compulsions that you engage in to help self-soothe and make the thoughts go away, a sign of the common, anxiety-rooted Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). “You might find yourself having repeated thoughts of harm or death befalling your loved ones and engage in frequent prayer to ensure [they’re safe],” she says.
Being irritable and impatient.
Because your brain is on overdrive when anxious—along with the rest of your body—you might have a super-short fuse when dealing with other people. Or, even technology. Or your pets. Or anything. Bradshaw says because you’re preoccupied with anxiety emotions, we have little patience for small talk, can’t handle it when something doesn’t go our way, and may even pick a fight with anyone who tries to help us.
Being fearful in social situations.
Even if you’re not normally the life of the party type, you probably at least enjoy a good time— until now. Schewitz says when anxiety grows, so does our fear in social situations. Most people will become more critical of themselves and worrisome about every interaction they have with strangers and even their closest companions. “You might worry excessively about how you look, what people think of you, that people are talking about you behind your back, that no one likes you, that you sound stupid when you talk, and so on,” she explains. “This is a sign of social anxiety and often leads to people avoiding social situations as a result of their fears.”
Having trouble sleeping.
Many people will start to experience their most intense anxiety feelings at pretty much the worst hour: bedtime. Bradshaw says it’s very common for people to lie awake in bed thinking and worrying because suddenly all of their distractions are gone. At night, “it’s just us and our thoughts, which finally have a captive audience,” she says. “We can push them aside during the onslaught of our daily lives and gain a temporary reprieve, but at night, when the demands of the day have gone to sleep, the thoughts we’ve swept under the rug resurface, demanding attention.”
Feeling physically sick to your stomach.
Not-so-fun fact: Your brain cannot distinguish between a real threat—there’s a tiger chasing you —and a perceived threat—worrying about getting fired or whether a friend is mad at you. When you’re in a situation where you must fight or flee—either in true danger or a conceptualized, hazardous condition—your body shifts, too, and it does everything it can to survive. As Bradshaw explains, we no longer need to produce saliva or digest food. Instead, our brain cuts off blood flow to our digestive system and redirects it to your muscles. “The sensation can feel like you have a knot or a heavy weight in your stomach, or even butterflies fluttering around in there,” she explains. In fact, it’s important to note that our brain and gut are connected, with over 90 percent of our serotonin residing in our gut. In turn, we can feel sick to our stomach as our microbiome is compromised.
What can cause anxiety?
Though nearly any unexpected turn of events can cause anxiety symptoms to populate, there are common sources, according to experts. From finances and career, to current relationships and even family history, here are some of the most prevalent anxiety causes.
Though many people will suffer from financial anxiety when they’re barely making ends meet, Bradshaw says even those who have more than enough to get by may worry, too. When you or your partner lose your source of income, a huge medical or home damage bill shows up in your mailbox, or when you become a caretaker for a sick parent, you experience major financial strain. This can manifest through anxiety symptoms, and Bradshaw urges people to explore their relationship to money and what it means in their life. Often, by doing this, you’ll be able to pinpoint habits that need to change. “If you make choices that don’t align with your meaning, and therefore you can’t achieve desired goals, there will ll inevitably be some anxiety,” she says. For example, “if money means security and freedom, and you don’t manage your money in a way that allows you to experience security and freedom, this will certainly cause you anxiety.”
Whether you have toxic coworkers or a micromanaging boss, dreading going into the office every day is a surefire way to trigger anxiety symptoms. As Bradshaw explains, most Americans spend a disproportionate amount of time at work or working, even when they’re home. For most people, email follows them all the way to bed, where our phone rests a few inches from our pillow. This constant nagging notion that you should be “on” creates anxious feelings. “We’re always accessible and expected to be available—this is a source of stress,” she says. “The workload is heavier and the workday is longer and seemingly endless with our devices keeping us tethered to our jobs even while on vacation.”
If you can’t shake the ongoing thought that you hate your job—Bradshaw suggests chatting with a professional who can help you navigate feelings of uncertainty, lack of control and not having a sense of agency over yourself while at work.
Your technological devices.
Most of us are guilty of giving our phones, computers, and tablets more attention than we do our partners, pets, or even our children. In an ever-connected world, it’s easy to check in, scroll, or read the latest news constantly. However, Lori Whatley, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the effects of digital device usage on individuals and relationships, says too much tech can cause anxiety symptoms because it over-stimulates the brain and nervous system, almost creating an addiction.
“We can become anxious when we don't have our tech with us and even have phantom vibrations when we’re away from our phones,” she says. “We can suffer from a fear of missing out when we leave our tech behind for a while and realize that we’re constantly thinking about it and wondering what others are doing and saying online that we’re missing.” When we start to feel nervous if separated from our gadgets, Whatley suggests talking to a nearby friend or colleague. This is because what we’re actually craving is connection and engagement, which our phones can provide in an instant. Striking up a conversation may have the same impact, and decrease those feelings.
Your family history.
Anxiety can be situational, genetic, and chemical, and that all three factors—your circumstances/environment, DNA, and chemical makeup—contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder, says Sarah Schewitz, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, Calif. “There are many neurotransmitters in our brain that impact our mood. The main ones that impact anxiety are serotonin, GABA, dopamine, and norepinephrine,” Schewitz explains. “If the levels or absorption of these neurotransmitters are off, it can cause anxiety.” This means if your mother or father suffered from anxiety, the odds you may experience it are higher, especially if you witnessed their symptoms firsthand.
Your relationships and friendships.
Your friend group can turn your whole life around with encouraging messages, long conversations, and even a meaningful hug. But what about when there’s stress in your friendships or your romantic relationships? You’ll probably experience heightened worry, since these people likely mean the world to you. Many people feel pressure from the outside world—including their closest community—to be their happiest, best, and most supportive, says Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a psychologist and psychotherapist in Los Angeles, Calif. When we feel as if we’re falling short, we often become overwhelmed, resulting in anxiety symptoms. The same is true when someone we trust and love disappoints or betrays us, or when we’re going through a huge transition. Even wonderful ones—like marriage or expecting a baby—can bring unexpected, negative emotions. More often than not, the best way to combat these thoughts and emotions is through talking them out with a professional.
You know the signs, now here are some of the best ways to cope if you’re struggling with anxiety, including therapy, stress management, and mindfulness meditation.