How many times have you felt worried, nervous, or more anxious than usual?
From fidgeting to biting our nails to chewing on our lips—if we’re experiencing signs of anxiety and stress—does it mean we have an anxiety disorder?
How can we find out?
Feeling stressed, anxious, nervous, or worried—about changes to our routines, major life events, or even trying a new activity for the first time—can be a very normal human reaction.
In contrast, experiencing constant and overwhelming worry—that interrupts our ability to get things done and enjoy our lives—can be an indication that we may have an anxiety disorder.
If you suspect you might be living with an anxiety disorder, be sure to talk with your primary care physician and/or a licensed mental health counselor about your concerns.
Read on for more about the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and how to figure out if you might have an anxiety disorder.
How common is anxiety in America?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the U.S., according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Over 19% of American adults—over 40 million people—have an anxiety disorder.
And those are only the people who have been diagnosed.
According to Harvard Medical School’s National Comorbidity Study, in the 2007 data on prevalence of disorders, just over one-third (31%) of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetimes.
That’s 102 million of us!
If thoughts of worst-case scenarios or self-blame are interrupting your day and gnawing your brain with worry—understand that you’re not alone.
Reaching out to a doctor or licensed mental health professional can help.
There are many effective anxiety treatment options, which we will discuss in more detail below.
5 common symptoms of anxiety
While no two people experience stress and anxiety exactly the same way, there are several common symptoms.
Sweaty palms, a rapid heartbeat, and lightheadedness are all sensations we feel when we're worried or nervous.
For people living with an anxiety disorder, however, we experience these symptoms much more often—or even all the time.
The symptoms associated with anxiety disorders can interfere with our lives, and long-term health, when left untreated.
If any of the following disrupt your daily routine, you may have an anxiety disorder and you should discuss with your doctor and/or licensed therapist:
Sleep Problems: There’s a difference between regular disruptions to your sleep and occasional tossing and turning. Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep , even when you feel tired, are sure signs that your mind is in overdrive.
Difficulty focusing and concentrating: Maybe you have work that keeps escaping you. Or there are tasks that never quite seem to get finished. Why? Because intrusive worrisome thoughts consume you from the moment you wake up until you go to bed.
Breathing issues: Being unable to catch your breath during a panic attack is one thing. But if you find yourself experiencing shortness of breath when you are just trying to keep anxiety at bay, it's something you should absolutely bring to your doctor's attention.
Always feeling on edge: If you find that small disagreements or frustrations send you over the edge, take note. There’s a difference between feeling occasionally stressed out, and never feeling at ease. In small doses, stress and anxiety can be somewhat healthy and helpful for us. However, if you find yourself biting your nails or chewing your lips, or get to the point where you can’t ever relax and never have peace of mind—know that there are anxiety treatments that can help you.
Extreme fatigue: Being overstimulated by anxiety and worry, paired with poor quality (or non-existent sleep or insomnia), is enough to wear anyone out. Living with untreated anxiety not only takes a toll on your mental health—it also can have direct long-term effects on your physical health as well.
How do you know if it’s an anxiety disorder and not just nerves?
Feeling nervous or anxious from time to time happens to pretty much everyone, and it’s part of being human.
Typically, in a normal case of stress, when the event or concern that triggered our concern ceases or ends, our anxiety symptoms subside.
In contrast—according to Mental Health America (MHA)—"Anxiety disorders are not just a case of ‘nerves.’” MHA points out that these disorders cause us to feel anxious most of the time, making some everyday situations so uncomfortable that we may avoid them entirely.
For those of us living with anxiety disorders, NAMI points out that we can experience “persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.”
Emotional anxiety symptoms can also include feelings of apprehension or dread and/or anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger.
When symptoms from anxiety disorder are left unaddressed and untreated, they can be detrimental to our cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and nervous systems.
4 main types of anxiety disorders
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), “People with GAD may anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues.”
The ADAA points out that individuals with GAD have a difficult time controlling their worry, and they may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
8 signs and symptoms of GAD
The ADAA shares these eight signs of GAD.
If you experience one or more symptoms, consider speaking with your primary care doctor or a mental health professional such as a licensed counselor or therapist who specializes in anxiety .
Feeling nervous, irritable, or on edge
Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
Having an increased heart rate
Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling
Feeling weak or tired
Having trouble sleeping
Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
Social anxiety disorder
If you find yourself avoiding meeting new people, conversations, and social gatherings or contributing in classes and group settings, you may have social anxiety disorder.
More than shyness—as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out in its social anxiety disorder fact sheet—this disorder is “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.”
Social anxiety disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often fueled by irrational worries about humiliation—such as saying something stupid or not knowing what to say.
7 symptoms of social anxiety disorder
According to the NIMH social anxiety fact sheet, when they need to be in front of or be around others, people with social anxiety disorder may:
Blush, sweat, or tremble.
Have a rapid heart rate.
Feel our “minds going blank” or feel sick to your stomachs.
Have a rigid body posture, or speak with an overly soft voice.
Find it difficult to make eye contact, be around people we don’t know, or talk to people in social situationsFeel self-consciousness or fear that people will judge them negatively.
Avoid places where there are other people.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, “If you have repeated, and unexpected panic attacks, you may have panic disorder. Panic disorder causes bouts of overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause for the fear.”
In a panic attack, sudden feelings of terror may strike repeatedly and without warning. Often mistaken for a heart attack, a panic attack causes powerful physical symptoms. Here’s more detail on what a panic attack feels like.
How to tell if you have panic disorder
As John Hopkins Medicine points out, “If you have 4 or more panic attacks and if you always worry about having another, you have panic disorder.”
Symptoms of a panic attack may include:
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath
Sense of choking
Nausea or belly pain
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Feeling unreal or disconnected from oneself
Fear of losing control
Fear of "going crazy" or dying
Chills or hot flashes
Chest pain and other symptoms that mimic a heart attack
“We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful,” as NAMI points out. “But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear.”
Phobias produce intense fear of a particular object or situation that is, in fact, relatively safe, according to Mental Health America. “People who suffer from specific phobias are aware that their fear is irrational, but the thought of facing the object or situation often brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.”
How to get help with phobias
Mental Health America and other trusted sources agree phobias can be overcome with proper treatment. Phobias diagnosable illness, and doctors or licensed mental health professionals can help.
Here’s how to find licensed therapists near you who specialize in phobias.
Anxiety’s impacts on our cardiovascular and nervous systems
For those of us who are living with chronic, untreated anxiety disorder, the symptoms can have more long-term physical impacts on our bodies.
That feeling of our hearts beating out of your chest when our anxiety kicks into high gear means our cardiovascular system is working overtime.
Not only does the tightness in our chests contribute to that uneasy feeling, but when left untreated, our anxiety negatively impacts our blood pressure.
Similarly, untreated anxiety wreaks havoc on our nervous systems.
A July 2018 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that adults with chronic anxiety had a greater sympathetic response to both physiological and mental stress.
When we feel like we're in fight or flight mode 24/7 (because of anxiety), it causes our bodies to release hormones that are not needed and can create additional issues. This is because our overactive sympathetic nervous systems are adding to our anxiety, panic attacks and nervousness.
Digestive and immune system effects from anxiety
Have you ever felt like your stomach was tied in knots when you were anxious?
Those same hormones and chemicals that impact our nervous system also impact our digestion and can result in a wide range of issues eventually—from constipation to diarrhea.
And, of course, when our bodies are working overtime to protect us from whatever our minds are telling us are threats, it can leave less energy to keep our immune systems in tip-top shape.
Bottom line? Prolonged, untreated anxiety weakens your immune system and leaves you more susceptible to illness.
Treatments for anxiety
When your primary care doctor and/or licensed mental health professional develops a treatment plan to help you cope with living with anxiety, there are different recommendations they may make, including medication, therapy—or a combination of both.
Prescription medications for anxiety
If your doctor uses prescription medication as part of your treatment for anxiety, you'll likely end up with anti-anxiety medication, an antidepressant, or a beta-blocker.
Each medication serves a different purpose and can be part of your treatment plan for different lengths of time. Each individual can react differently to different medications and different doses.
Anti-anxiety benzodiazepine medications—such as Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, or Valium—might be recommended for shorter periods, as opposed to long-term solutions.
While these benzodiazepines may help anxiety symptoms decrease quickly, there is a chance your body will become acclimated to the medication, decreasing its effectiveness over time. It’s also possible to become dependent on benzodiazepines from frequent use.
It’s important to keep in mind that benzodiazepines should never be combined with drinking alcohol, as it can increase the side effects which can be dangerous and deadly.
Antidepressants can be a longer-term solution that may improve your overall quality of life.
These medications—including SSRIs selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro and/or SNRIs selective neurotransmitter reuptake inhibitors such as Cymbalta, Pristiq, and Effexor XR—can take several weeks to fully take effect and make a difference. For this reason, it’s important that you don't stop taking them if you don’t notice an immediate positive change after just a week or so of taking the medication..
Beta-blockers may also be prescribed to take the edge off of the physical symptoms of anxiety. This medication is typically used on an “as needed” basis (such as before an important public speaking event) and isn't something to take long-term.
Talk therapy and CBT as an anxiety treatment
Participating in talk therapy or psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), helps us manage our anxiety by learning coping strategies and diving into what needs to change in the present to help us cope better.
CBT helps us focus on our thought processes and behaviors.
When we understand what is driving our anxiety, we're in a better place to cope with anxiety in a healthy way.
While it may be possible for our anxiety to be successfully treated with only medication or only therapy, in most cases, a combination of both treatments is recommended.
On one hand, medication will reduce physiological symptoms while you become accustomed to using the coping strategies you learn from therapy to change your behavior and thinking patterns.
READ NEXT: 5 Signs of High-Functioning Anxiety
Need to find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety? Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find licensed anxiety therapists near you with availability and online booking.