What is anxiety? – Signs, Symptoms, Management & Prevention

Feeling nervous or anxious from time to time is normal. Every person experiences those feelings, but when these negative emotions become persistent and overwhelming, they may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

What is anxiety

What is Anxiety?

That feeling of dread or uneasiness you experience before a job interview or a meeting that could change your career is anxiety. Temporary anxiety linked to a specific event like this might make you sweat or feel tense. Some people also report a faster heartbeat and a general feeling of restlessness.

All these experiences are a normal part of everyday life and help you cope with stressful, anxiety-inducing events. Like a certain degree of stress, passing anxiety before an exam or a stressful day can help you focus and give you a boost of energy when you need it most. The emotions you are experiencing are part of your body’s and your mind’s response to stressors.

This normal type of anxiety is not the same as anxiety disorders. People suffering from an anxiety disorder struggle with persistent feelings of fear, uneasiness, and dread. Their anxiety is neither temporary nor helpful. Instead, it starts to interfere with common daily activities. Students may find their academic performance dropping, whereas adults could struggle to meet performance requirements and deadlines in their jobs. Many anxiety sufferers also notice that they are struggling in their relationships with partners, family members, and friends.

If the latter scenario sounds like it may apply to you, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety is currently the most common mental illness in the United States. Approximately one in five American adults are suffering from an anxiety disorder every year, equivalent to 40 million adults aged 18 or older. Although this mental health condition is highly treatable, only about 40% of sufferers receive the treatment they need. 

Lacking treatment puts Americans with anxiety at an increased risk of being hospitalized or developing another mental health disorder on top of anxiety.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders can vary widely between individuals and anxiety disorders. Physical illnesses tend to cause similar symptoms in all sufferers. This is not the case with mental health problems. Despite indicating the same condition, signs and symptoms may differ significantly.

Where anxiety is concerned, there are common symptoms that most sufferers experience. Those symptoms include anxious beliefs and thoughts. Over time, these thoughts may become overwhelming as symptoms get worse. They will start interfering with daily life and become life-limiting.

As a consequence, anxiety sufferers often change their behaviors and start avoiding activities they would have enjoyed previously. Anxiety also causes physical symptoms, including an increased heart rate or shortness of breath. Sufferers also report seemingly unexplainable aches and pains as well as dizziness.

Signs and Symptoms in Kids

Anxiety disorders are not exclusive to adults but also affect children and adolescents. Figures from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) show that nearly three in ten teenagers spend their adolescent years dealing with anxiety. Nearly one in ten of those adolescents feels severely impaired by their condition.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that nearly one in ten children aged between three and 17 years has been diagnosed with anxiety. This number is equivalent to just under six million kids and adolescents. Historical figures published by the CDC show that anxiety and depression in children have nearly doubled over the course of this century.

Like adults, children naturally experience fears and even strong fears from time to time. But when those fears do not subside after a few days, they can point toward a more serious anxiety condition. For example, many toddlers and young children feel anxious when their parents are not around, even if other family members are caring for them. As they get older, most children simply grow out of those fears.

However, some children do not outgrow their fears. For others, worries and fears can become so overwhelming that they interfere with any other activity. Children with anxiety disorder are likely to struggle at home, in school, and during any other activities. As their condition worsens, they may even shy away from activities they previously enjoyed.

Aside from fear and worry, other signs and symptoms of anxiety in children include:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Sleeping problems, leading to fatigue
  • Unexplained headaches or stomach aches
  • Physical symptoms like breathing problems, dizziness, shaking, outbreaks of sweat, or a pounding heart

Anxiety in kids and adolescents can take different forms, just like anxiety in adults. One of the most common forms of anxiety in children is separation anxiety, a fear of being away from their parents or main guardians. Other kids develop extreme anxieties about specific situations or things. They may be scared of insects, dogs, or occasions like seeing their doctor or dentist.

In some cases, childhood and adolescent anxiety can be triggered by a fear of having to be around people, for example, at school or in other social situations. We will talk more about social anxiety below.

Children also worry about the future in general and the potential of bad things happening to them, their families, and their friends. Physical symptoms of anxiety may be an indication of a panic disorder. Not every anxious child is displaying obvious symptoms. Some kids and adolescents simply stay quiet, making it difficult for parents and guardians to recognize the need for professional help.

Signs and Symptoms in Adults

Depending on the anxiety disorder an adult is suffering from, signs and symptoms may vary. Adults with anxiety may also feel different from day to day, with symptoms easing up from time to time. However, if an anxiety disorder goes undiagnosed or has remained untreated, adults suffering from the mental health disorder will feel hardly any respite. At that stage, their condition starts to interfere with their professional life as well as their home life. Serious anxiety disorders can dominate a person’s life to the detriment of anything outside of the condition.

With 40 million adult Americans struggling with anxiety every year, this illness is simply too important to ignore. As anxiety takes its toll on an adult’s life, they will lose productivity at work and struggle to look after their family. Without treatment, adults may find it impossible to control their symptoms enough to attend work altogether. As a consequence, their career will suffer, and they may even lose their jobs.

Because of the sheer number of anxiety sufferers, the prevalence of this condition is having an impact on the U.S. economy. With 40 million adults potentially unable or less able to perform at work and at home, productivity is bound to suffer. For that reason alone, it is important to become familiar with anxiety symptoms in adults to spot them early.

Men and women experience anxiety differently. That is why we will split the next part of this article between those two genders. Researchers have found that men and women differ in their approach to coping with anxiety.

Whilst women are more comfortable focusing on and addressing their emotional states, men are often brought up to favor problem-solving instead. As a result, their coping mechanisms center on regaining control over their negative emotions rather than managing and dealing with those feelings.

Signs and Symptoms in Men

Men are less likely to suffer from anxiety than women. Saying that they are still severely affected by this mental illness. Plus, a man’s experience of anxiety is often noticeably different from anxiety in women or children. These differences are caused by both biological and social factors.

Men experience anxiety differently from women. Researchers found that men admitting to symptoms of anxiety tended to suffer from more severe anxiety than women. They were also more likely to experience physical symptoms as part of their condition. At the core of most men’s anxiety symptoms was often a sensation of losing control or feeling anxious because they are perceiving themselves as failures. Male anxiety sufferers also referred to their experience of the illness as enduring, and sometimes life-long.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety in men include:

  • Nausea and headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble sleeping and insomnia
  • Chest pains
  • Palpitations and an increased heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Panic attacks

Emotional and mental symptoms of male anxiety include:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Behavioral changes like increased substance use
  • Persistent feelings of fear and paranoia, dread, and hopelessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Becoming absent-minded
  • Avoiding trigger situations
  • Mood swings
  • Low self-esteem

One major difference between anxiety and men and women is the tendency of men to become angry and irritable as their anxiety worsens. These behavioral changes, alongside potential alcohol and substance use, can threaten personal and professional relationships.

Whilst we will discuss types of anxiety affecting men and women later, there is one type of anxiety that affects men especially. When it is connected to sex, performance anxiety is far more common in men than in women.

Sexual performance anxiety occurs when a man becomes so preoccupied that it affects his ability to become aroused. Some men suffer from this type of anxiety because of relationship problems or their own negative body image. For others, performance anxiety arises when they are worried about how they compare to other men and whether they will be able to satisfy their partner.

Signs and Symptoms in Women

According to the ADAA, women are more than twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder between puberty and turning 50 years old. This greater susceptibility to anxiety disorders puts women at the heart of the country’s mental health crisis. Understanding more about the root causes as well as signs and symptoms of anxiety in women can go a long way toward addressing the condition.

Like men and children, women may experience a combination of physical and emotional symptoms as a consequence of suffering from an anxiety disorder. However, compared to men they are less likely to react with anger or develop coping mechanisms including substance abuse.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety in women include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Hot flashes
  • Shortness of breath
  • An increased heart rate or palpitations
  • Unexplained stomach upsets or nausea
  • Persistent restlessness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, leading to fatigue
  • Dizziness

Emotional and behavioral symptoms of anxiety in women may include:

  • Excessive and persistent fear and worry
  • Behavioral changes, including avoiding anxiety triggers
  • Problems concentrating and focusing
  • Difficulties making decisions
  • Feeling on edge or irritable

Not every time a woman feels anxious or displays a symptom of anxiety is a signal for an anxiety disorder. Mild anxiety, perhaps triggered by a stressful event, is normal and may even help women focus better and deal with the problem in front of them.

However, as temporary symptoms turn into more permanent problems, they can become overwhelming. Dealing with a permanently anxious state of mind can interfere with all other aspects of a woman’s life. The condition may limit her career and damage both professional and personal relationships.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety During Pregnancy

It is easy to have an idealized idea of pregnancy as a happy time spent decorating the nursery and choosing names. In reality, though, many women find aspects of their pregnancies tough to deal with. Hormonal changes are among these parts, causing mood changes, previously unknown fatigue, and constant fears and worries.

For some women, these concerns and anxieties are exacerbated by underlying health conditions or the experience of previous miscarriages. Anxiety during pregnancy is relatively common, and it is not unreasonable to worry about the baby’s future and how the new arrival will impact family life, friendships, relationships, and careers. Many women also worry about the financial burden of raising a child.

Like in other anxiety disorders, some level of concern is normal. The scales tip toward an anxiety disorder when fears and worries become obsessive and debilitating. Anxiety symptoms in women during pregnancy resemble those of women at other times of their lives. They include emotional problems as well as physical symptoms, including a rapid heartbeat and breathing difficulties.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have found that pregnancy-related anxiety tends to be highest during the first trimester. They believe that hormonal changes are the most likely cause at that time. Although doctors are aware of those changes, anxiety during pregnancy and in the postpartum period remains underdiagnosed. Many women suffer in silence as they are dealing with their symptoms.

Whilst anxiety in women can be life-changing at any time, during pregnancy, this mental health condition also raises concerns for the fetus. Research has linked anxiety with a heightened risk of preterm birth, lower birth weight, and a smaller brain size. Because of the potential seriousness of those risks, it is important for women, their families, and their doctors to be aware of the symptoms of anxiety and offer treatment options.

Untreated anxiety during pregnancy and into the postpartum period has the potential to threaten the health of the mother and baby. Because of that, it is important not only for the pregnant woman but also those around her to understand the causes and symptoms of anxiety. Addressing the condition before it becomes serious is critical for the unborn child’s happiness as well as the mom’s health.

Signs and Symptoms in Elderly

Anxiety affects people of all ages. It does not stop, simply because we get older, or because people retire. According to the CDC, approximately one in five Americans over the age of 55 suffers from a mental health concern. Not all seniors may be dealing with anxiety, but a significant percentage of older Americans cannot enjoy their retirement in full due to mental health concerns.

Aging is not necessarily connected to declining mental health, but some of the aspects of aging may predispose seniors to persistent fear and worry. Without proper precautions, occasional anxiety can quickly spiral out of control and become a fully-developed mental health condition. Developing mental health problems later in life may prevent seniors from enjoying their well-deserved retirement.

Like anxiety sufferers of other age groups, seniors may suffer from a variety of symptoms. These symptoms are not necessarily the same in every sufferer. However, most elderly anxiety patients have something in common: they are dealing with a combination of physical and mental or emotional symptoms.

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder in the elderly include:

  • Increased heart rate and palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling and dizziness
  • Hot flashes
  • Frequent urination
  • Nausea
  • Excessive sweating, or cold and sweaty ha ds
  • Dry mouth

Emotional and behavioral symptoms include the following:

  • Disproportionate reactions in relation to the fear that triggered them
  • Uncontrollable feelings of panic or apprehension
  • Problems with memory and focus
  • Trouble sleeping, including insomnia and nightmares
  • Developing ritualistic behaviors, such as excessive handwashing
  • Refusing to do previously routine activities

Whilst some of those symptoms mirror those of young people or adults in other age groups, there are also some marked differences in anxiety in seniors. This can make it harder to identify anxiety, meaning the condition often goes unnoticed and undiagnosed.

At the same time, it is important to remember that it is normal to experience those symptoms briefly or occasionally. Everyone feels scared and overwhelmed at times. As people get older, drastic changes in life circumstances and failing health may contribute to the development of anxiety. When symptoms become life-limiting, it is time to seek help.

The differences between anxiety in men and women continue into older age. Female seniors are more likely to be affected by anxiety disorders than men. Research by the NCOA shows that this is especially noticeable following the loss of a spouse or partner.

Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks

Having discussed the symptoms of anxiety for different age groups, it is time to consider the different types of anxiety disorders and who is affected by them.

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The most common anxiety disorder in adults of all ages is known as generalized anxiety disorder or GAD. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) highlights that GAD is not the same as occasionally worrying or feeling anxious in connection with a stressful event. Instead, anyone suffering from this disorder deals with persistent feelings of dread and anxiety that have become severe enough to disturb their daily life. These symptoms may last for months and sometimes even for years.

In most cases, the fear a person feels is disproportionate to its trigger. Many GAD sufferers worry excessively about routine issues and find it difficult to control their emotions and any physical effects of those emotions. It is not uncommon for GAD patients to display symptoms of other types of anxiety or depression.

GAD is also the most common anxiety disorder in seniors. Elderly people may find themselves expecting the worst outcome in every situation. They may feel on edge or on high alert, even if there is no discernible cause. Most anxiety sufferers understand that their reaction is excessive, but they are unable to control their emotional reaction.

2. Panic Disorder

Panic disorder or anxiety attacks are other forms of anxiety disorder. Rather than causing permanent and persistent feelings of fear and uneasiness, panic disorder leads to sudden attacks of intense anxiety and even terror. The attacks can reach their height within minutes and cause severe physical discomfort. Sufferers have reported chest pains and a rapid, pounding heartbeat.

As with other forms of anxiety disorder, the reaction is incongruent with the trigger. There is no clearly visible danger or trigger that would be obvious to bystanders or even close family members. Panic attacks may happen a few times a year, although some individuals experience them several times per day.

Apart from the actual attacks, panic disorder may also lead to more persistent worries that attacks may happen again. As a result, many sufferers will start to actively avoid situations and circumstances similar to those that triggered previous attacks.

3. Phobias

Phobias are another form of anxiety disorder. Phobias are aversions to or fears of situations or objects. Some of those situations may have the potential to cause some anxiety, but like in other anxiety disorders, the reaction is disproportionate to the fear.

The NIMH distinguishes between phobias and so-called specific phobias. Whilst phobias can be complex, specific or simple phobias are “intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger.” These simple phobias tend to be related to specific objects or situations. Common phobias include:

  • Fear of heights
  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of receiving injections
  • Fear of specific animals such as snakes or spiders

People who are phobic tend to go out of their way to avoid those situations. They may choose to travel by car or train, for example. Those with a fear of injections or medical treatment may avoid seeing their doctor altogether and therefore endangering their health by missing out on critical treatment.

One of the best-known phobias is agoraphobia, a type of fear related to the space a person is in. For some sufferers, this phobia is so strong that they avoid leaving their homes. Others are afraid of being in open spaces or standing inside a crowd. As their anxiety disorder spirals out of control, they may struggle to make it to work or participate in family activities.

4. Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder affects mostly children and young people, although it is not impossible for adults to experience similar feelings. Toddlers often struggle when they are separated from their parents, but most children outgrow this natural separation anxiety with age.

Those who continue to be affected by separation anxiety not only struggle to be parted from others. They may also fear that someone they are attached to may come to harm whilst they are not together. That is why they avoid being apart. Separation anxiety patients may also have nightmares about being separated or suffer from physical symptoms of anxiety when they are anticipating a separation.

Anxiety & Heart or Chest Pain

Chest pain is frequently listed as a symptom of anxiety. Heart racing or chest pain can occur in different parts of the population dealing with different forms of anxiety.

Heart or chest problems can be frightening when they happen, and many patients seek out emergency medical treatment to clear up the causes of the pain. According to scientists from Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute, nearly half of the patients visiting the emergency room with chest pain find out that they are not suffering from a heart condition. About 30 to 40% of them learn that anxiety caused their symptoms.  

Despite this close relationship between anxiety and chest pain, it is important to prioritize expert medical treatment for heart and chest-related concerns. Anxiety leads to chest pain because it triggers our brain to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into a person’s bloodstream. This is the brain’s way of preparing you for a fight.

Adrenaline and cortisol rapidly increase the heart rate and blood pressure of a person, which can easily lead to pain and excessive sweating. This release of hormones can also make it hard to breathe for a moment.

In healthy individuals, hormone levels quickly return to normal. In people with an anxiety disorder, these levels tend to remain high for longer and may trigger a panic attack. Over time, these symptoms can also increase the risk of a genuine heart attack. Anyone experiencing symptoms like chest pain should always seek medical advice. Without sophisticated testing, it is difficult to determine whether the symptoms were caused by anxiety or a heart condition.

Social Anxiety or Social Phobia

We started looking at different phobias above, but it is worth taking a closer look at social anxiety disorder. This disorder used to be known as social phobia. However, scientists more recently started referring to it as a disorder of its own.

People suffering from social anxiety disorder tend to have an intense fear of social situations or performance-based situations. They worry that their behaviors or actions in those situations may be considered embarrassing. Others believe they will be evaluated negatively by people around them.

Social anxiety disorder can affect people of all ages, starting in childhood and lasting throughout adult life into old age. This illness causes sufferers to avoid social situations in school, in their workplace, and even with family or friends.

Social anxiety in children often relates to school and may cause kids to be irritable and angry as they cannot give school a miss without causing other issues. They may struggle to sleep and develop physical symptoms of anxiety, too.

In elderly people, a social anxiety disorder can have serious implications on overall health and well-being. As we age, our social circle tends to decrease naturally. Combined with social anxiety disorder, this decrease can quickly lead to isolation. Becoming isolated from others can predispose seniors to other mental health conditions.

Is Social Anxiety Disorder a Mental Illness?

The short answer to this question is “yes.” Social anxiety disorder is a mental illness that is part of the spectrum of anxiety disorders.

However, it is important to differentiate between social anxiety and being introverted. Introverts choose to spend time alone because they enjoy their own company and solitude in general. They do not feel like they are missing out by avoiding social gatherings and other events. Introverts also rarely feel nervous in crowds or are afraid of rejection.

On the other hand, people suffering from social anxiety disorder are more likely to be frustrated by their struggle to connect with others. They would like to increase their social circle but are afraid of judgments and slip-ups. Some social anxiety disorder sufferers experience symptoms of their condition even when they are only thinking about occasions that require social interaction.

Root Causes of Anxiety

Scientists are still working to determine the exact cause of anxiety disorders. At this point, we know that several factors play a role in the development of these conditions, including:

  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental conditions
  • Brain chemistry
  • Persistent stress

Researchers believe that people who tend to be shy and withdrawn in new situations may be more prone to an anxiety disorder. Traumatic childhood events or a family history of anxiety and other mental health conditions may also predispose people to develop these conditions later in life.

How our brain chemistry influences the development of anxiety disorders is not yet fully understood, but scientists know that there are connections. A person’s physical health also influences their mental health, and doctors have found that conditions like arrhythmias or thyroid problems can put individuals at risk for anxiety disorders.

In elderly people, doctors have found a connection between failing physical health and big life changes and the development of mental health conditions. Declining physical health, including chronic conditions, can lead to fears that develop into anxiety. Life changes, like transitioning from independent living to assisted living facilities or nursing homes, can also trigger mental health concerns.

How do I Know if I Have Anxiety?

Most people who develop an anxiety disorder notice that their emotions and behaviors are changing. If you feel that is the case with you, consulting checklists of signs and symptoms – like the ones above – can be helpful.

One of the biggest differences between passing feelings of nervousness and diagnosable anxiety is the duration of the symptoms. Anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent, long-term symptoms that cannot be pushed aside. They start interfering with a person’s daily routine and can eventually become life-limiting.

If that sounds familiar to you, it is time to seek professional help. Your medical doctor may be able to provide guidance, but it is often best to seek an exact diagnosis from a qualified mental health professional.

What can I do?

Getting a diagnosis for your condition is the first step toward the successful treatment of anxiety disorders. These mental health problems are treatable, and anxiety sufferers can go on to live a full life with the right support.

Seeking professional advice is a great idea if you are starting to feel that your worries are taking over your life, for example by interfering with your career, schoolwork, or relationships. Feeling like you struggle to control your fears is another reason to start seeking professional help.

Examine your coping mechanisms, too. Many adults reach for alcohol or other substances to mask their symptoms or deal with them temporarily. Whilst this may provide relief initially, it can lead to more severe issues later on. Men are especially prone to reaching for unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Remember your anxiety may be linked to or caused by a physical problem. Your symptoms may also be caused by a medication you are taking to deal with a medical problem. Anxiety is a side effect of several well-known medications. If either of those scenarios applies to you, your physician can often help.

Like many other mental health conditions, anxiety is easier to treat in its earlier stages. If you think you may be suffering from a form of this illness, talk to a mental health professional now.

How does Therapy Help?

Medication and psychotherapy, or a combination of both, are the most common treatment options for anxiety disorders. In many cases, therapy is preferable.

Anxiety medication tends to address the symptoms that anxiety sufferers are experiencing. Whilst modern anti-anxiety medications are highly effective at relieving a patient’s symptoms, they are not treating the underlying causes of your condition. Plus, like all medications, these prescriptions also cause unwanted side effects.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counselling, addresses the underlying causes of a person’s anxiety. Most forms of therapy start by identifying the root causes of a person’s anxiety. In some cases, there are clear links between physical illness and mental health problems. In other cases, counselors and patients need to dig deeper and perhaps identify causes relating to a patient’s childhood.

Once the causes of the anxiety disorder have been found, counsellors will develop a treatment plan. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are two of the most common forms of therapy for anxiety.

CBT highlights unhelpful ways of thinking, reacting to situations, and behaving in general which exacerbates anxiety. Mental health professionals work with their patients to develop more productive ways of thinking and behaving that help them feel less anxious.

Psychotherapists and psychologists may suggest exposure therapy, a specific form of CBT that exposes patients gradually to their stressors. They learn to confront their fears and deal with them more effectively.

ACT is a newer form of therapy that uses mindfulness and goal-setting techniques to deal with anxiety.

By addressing the underlying causes of the condition and developing long-term coping strategies, therapy helps people suffering from anxiety disorders deal with their symptoms as well as resolve triggers. Depending on the severity of the condition, medical professionals may choose to combine medication and therapy. In those cases, the goal would be to use medication to address the symptoms just enough for therapy to become effective.

Throughout several sessions, therapy helps patients understand their condition and its triggers and causes. By increasing your knowledge of the reasons behind your anxiety disorder, you are starting to be able to address them and find better coping strategies.

Coping strategies may differ from person to person. For many, they include lifestyle changes and developing positive behaviours that prevent anxiety from spiraling out of control or limiting the effect of known triggers. Rather than being a life-limiting condition that patients struggle with for years, if not decades, therapy can treat anxiety effectively. People whose lives were previously severely limited, with careers, families, and social lives under pressure can return to or continue living a full life with the right treatment.  

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