Anxiety comes in many forms, but the different types often have certain core features.
Like many mental health problems, almost everyone experiences anxiety from time-to-time.
Whether it is a problem all depends on the amount and nature of the anxiety.
Everyday anxiety in response to stressful events is normal, but severe anxiety in response to relatively minor events can be seriously disabling.
Bear that in mind when reading the signs of anxiety.
For example, a lot of people have problems sleeping and muscle tension every now and then.
This might happen before a job interview, when going into hospital or before a stressful event.
But experiencing signs of anxiety frequently and intensely over smaller matters can be a sign of something more serious.
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Signs of anxiety
Here are four typical psychological signs of anxiety:
- Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness.
- Feeling constantly ‘on edge’ or restless.
- Having a frequent sense of dread.
- Problems concentrating.
And here are six typical physical signs of anxiety:
- Muscle tension.
- Problems sleeping.
- Dry mouth.
- Shortness of breath.
- Heart palpitations.
More subtle symptoms of anxiety
These ten signs of anxiety do not cover the full extent of what people experience.
People often report a very wide range of different physical and psychological signs of anxiety.
I have seen lists of signs of anxiety with at least 50 items.
Some people have many symptoms of anxiety, others have fewer.
Here are some of the more subtle symptoms and signs of anxiety:
1. Disappearing is a sign of anxiety
Anxiety can make people feel they want to escape or run away.
One of the signs of anxiety is that people experiencing anxiety may find it hard to continue doing the things they used to do.
For example, they may avoid contact with others in many subtle ways such as avoiding public transport or only going to deserted places.
They may also make excuses to avoid social occasions.
2. Change of eating habits
People experiencing anxiety may start eating more or a lot less — it takes people in different ways.
The important sign of anxiety is the change.
Some people who are anxious eat less because they don’t feel hungry or feel too sick to eat or find it hard to keep food down.
Other people may use food as a distraction from their worries.
They might experience constant cravings for sweet foods or anything that redirects their attention away from worries.
3. Physical symptoms are signs of anxiety
While we tend to think of anxiety as being something that is primarily mental, it actually has many physical manifestations.
Indeed, the physical symptoms of anxiety can be extremely varied.
For example, someone experiencing anxiety may complain of headaches or stomach pain.
Some people experience a dry mouth and throat, others feel nauseous, others still might grind their teeth or have the urge to urinate constantly.
4. Difficulty focusing
Constant worrying makes it hard to focus, which is one of the signs of anxiety.
People describe being a fog, or feeling dizzy or experiencing giddiness.
The swirl of anxious thoughts easily distracts from the task at hand.
The symptom of anxiety can make doing your job or even carrying out regular household chores much more challenging.
5. Signs of anxiety: poor sleep
Worries can keep people experiencing anxiety awake at night because they are exhausting.
Imagine drinking a double espresso and getting straight into bed.
With all that stimulation running around mind and body, it is difficult to drop off.
Similarly, when waking in the night, all those same anxieties are likely to come to the fore.
6. Change in appearance
Like weight, the appearance of people experiencing anxiety can be one of the signs of anxiety.
Some might start to lose interest in maintaining their physical appearance.
Clothes are not washed or ironed, hair unkempt and personal hygiene can suffer.
Alternatively, anxious people can become even more obsessed with their appearance.
People who are anxious are often perfectionists and their appearance is no different.
Again, a change in this other together with other signs could indicate excessive anxiety.
7. Need for excessive reassurance
Anxiety is frequently linked to difficulties making decisions or the avoidance of decisions.
Someone who is unusually anxious may request a lot of reassurance or help with their decisions.
Again, the thing to look for is a change in a person’s normal tendencies.
8. Anxiety literally makes everything stink
This is perhaps one of the most unusual signs of anxiety.
As people get more anxious, they are more likely to label neutral smells as bad smells (Krusemark & Li, 2013).
So, anxiety literally makes the world stink.
The reason, explains Professor Wen Li is:
“In typical odor processing, it is usually just the olfactory system that gets activated.
But when a person becomes anxious, the emotional system becomes part of the olfactory processing stream.”
And as people get more anxious they become better at distinguishing between different bad smells (Krusemark & Li, 2012).
9. Anxious people jump to conclusions
One of the signs of anxiety is that highly anxious people jump to conclusions more quickly when judging facial expressions.
A study by Fraley et al., (2006) suggests that anxious people may have problems in their relationships because they jump to conclusions too quickly about facial expressions.
Professor Fraley explained:
“This ‘hair trigger’ style of perceptual sensitivity may be one reason why highly anxious people experience greater conflict in their relationships.
The irony is that they have the ability to make their judgments more accurately than less-anxious people, but, because they are so quick to make judgments about others’ emotions, they tend to mistakenly infer other people’s emotional states and intentions.”
10. Poor balance is a symptom of anxiety
People who experience more severe levels of anxiety also often have problems with their balance.
They sometimes feel dizzy for no apparent reason and sway more than others while standing normally.
This often starts in childhood and, because symptoms of anxiety can be difficult to treat in children, psychologists have started trying to treat the balance problems.
Studies have shown that treating the balance problem can help with the anxiety (Bart et al., 2009).
11. Personal space changes are signs of anxiety
We all have an invisible field around us that we dislike other people invading.
In front of the face it’s generally about 20-40cm; if others get closer without our permission, it feels weird.
But, researchers have found that one of the signs of anxiety is that for anxious people, their personal space is larger (Sambo & Iannetti, 2013).
So, don’t charge up too close to anxious people, their ‘safety margin’ is larger.
Causes of anxiety
Like many things, high anxiety is partly in the genes, but part of the reason anxious people are anxious is because of their parents’ behaviour.
Children are more likely to experience signs of anxiety when their parents direct criticism at them, display high levels of doubt and are emotionally cold (Budinger et al., 2012).
Other factors that might cause signs of anxiety include an underlying health problems, a traumatic experience or it could accompany another mental health problem, such as depression.
Apart from ‘generalised anxiety’, symptoms of anxiety can also be triggered by all sorts of different things.
Anxiety disorder treatment
Anxiety disorders are diagnosed on the basis of the extent of the symptoms and how they affect everyday life.
People experiencing severe or disabling symptoms of anxiety most days should consider seeking some kind of help.
1. Therapy reduces signs of anxiety
Psychological therapies (including self-help) are particularly good at treating signs of anxiety disorders.
One approach psychological therapies use to reduce signs of anxiety is to think about situations differently.
- It’s not an exam; it’s a fun little quiz.
- It’s not a scary presentation; it’s a little chat with a few colleagues.
- It’s not a job interview; it’s a chance to meet some new people.
Most situations can be re-framed in this way and studies show that people who do this naturally — as opposed to trying to suppress their anxiety — feel less anxious in stressful social situations (Llewellyn et al., 2013).
2. Exercise reduces signs of anxiety
Generally, when people get a little exercise they feel fewer signs of anxiety in their lives.
As little as 20 minutes can make you feel calmer right now.
The benefits of a little workout extend beyond the gym, though, into everyday life.
One study has found that although simply resting reduces anxiety, it doesn’t help protect against stressful events (Smith, 2013).
Exercise, though, seems to have a more lasting effect, helping to reduce anxiety when faced with stressful situations afterwards.
Indeed, many think exercise should be prescribed for depression and anxiety instead of drugs.
3. Meditation reduces signs of anxiety
On top of exercise and thinking differently, those experiencing anxiety can also try meditation.
To pick just one of many recent studies, Zeidan et al. (2013) found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by up to 39 percent.
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