What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Over the last few years, a big push for mental health awareness has allowed for anxiety and anxiety disorders to come into the limelight. As the stigma around anxiety and mental health is slowly being chipped away, more and more people are realising that the anxiety that they are living can perhaps be prevented or treated, and that the toll that anxiety takes does not have to be a permanent fixture in their lives.

Indeed, one New York times article from 2016 noted in that in the past eight years, Google search rates for anxiety have more than doubled, and that 2016 saw the most searches out of any year in the past decade.

And yet, the mainstreaming of anxiety has also fostered an environment of misinformation, or at least, has failed to facilitate a fostering of in-depth understanding of what anxiety is and what it feels like to different individuals, the many forms that it may assume, and what can be done about it. This blog seeks to elucidate some of the most pertinent of these questions, namely, what does anxiety really feel like, how do different anxiety disorders differ from one another, and what can be done about it?

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What is Anxiety, and Why Do We Have It?

Feelings of anxiety are often conflated with a general feeling of worry, or having worried thoughts. But the word ‘anxiety’ is an umbrella term for a number of different anxiety disorders, each condition encompassing a mental, emotional, and physical aspect, and each with overlapping as well as distinct symptoms. All anxiety disorders are characterized by a few hallmark indicators, including feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Other common symptoms include overwhelming fear, dizziness, heart palpitations, trembling, chest pressure or pain, feeling detached from reality or disassociation, and numbness. However, it is important to note that anxiety can feel very different depending on the person, and on the specific disorder. Different kinds of anxiety disorders are characterized by specific symptoms – more on this below.

When faced with a potentially dangerous or harmful l situation, anxiety is one of the human body’s most natural and necessary responses. When the body feels that it is in danger, the biological response to anxiety – an increase in the hormone adrenaline – causes a host of biological reactions, including an increased heartbeat, sweating, and increased awareness and sensitivity to our surroundings. These physiological changes allow us to take action to either evade or confront the potentially dangerous situation, a well-known phenomenon referred as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

And while potentially dangerous and physically life-threatening situations have become less of a norm in the 21st century, anxiety is now instead felt in relation to work, money, family life, and other crucial issues that demand an individual’s’ full attention. The anxiety you feel when you’re running late for your international flight, or right before you have to present a proposal in front of your boss and colleagues, while unpleasant, might actually put the necessary pressure on you to perform your best — in this case, perhaps your body wakes you up an hour before you meant to in order to leave ample time before your flight, or to practice your presentation a few too many times in front of friends and family.

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Anxiety Disorders

So, if feeling anxious is at times a normal and healthy response to life, how do we know if the anxiety that we are feeling is within the range of normal?  In other words, how do you know whether your general feelings of anxiety have become, or are becoming, a disorder?

Anxiety is thought to become an anxiety disorder when the general feeling of fear or worry that is usually felt sporadically becomes more persistent. In many cases, anxiety disorders are differentiated from the general feeling of anxiety when those feelings become intense, distracting, or dysfunctional, often resulting in more physical symptoms. Often, more persistent feelings of anxiety also result in trouble carrying out what otherwise used to be normal activities, like going to work or seeing a friend that you’ve been meaning to catch up with.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults aged 18 years and older, or around 18.1% of the population, every year. Anxiety disorders can be divided into six main types, listed below. Knowing what each of these specific anxieties feel like may help you narrow in on what type of anxiety you may be suffering from, and better equip you to coping and seeking the help you need.

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the broadest type and one of the most common types of anxiety disorders, is characterized by the feeling of excessive and long-lasting worrying. People suffering from GAD can experience severe and irrational concern around specific triggers. These triggers may often revolve around nonspecific life events, objects, thoughts, or situations, although they are also often not identifiable by the individual suffering. GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, yet according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, less than 50% of sufferers are receiving treatment. Women are also twice as likely to be affected as men.

2. Panic Disorder

Panic Disorders are characterized by brief and unexpected ‘attacks’ of intense terror and apprehension. If you have ever felt a sudden, dreadful feeling of fear that lasts several minutes, accompanied by equally terrifying physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, a racing heart, shaking or trembling, sweating, weakness or dizziness, or a fear of dying, then you may have already suffered from a panic attack. But while panic attacks are relatively common in times of high stress, a panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated panic attacks, as well as a fear of having more attacks. Panic disorders affect 6 million adults, or 2.7% of the U.S. population, and they are also twice as likely to afflict women than men.

3. Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by intense fear of being judged, embarrassed, negatively evaluated or rejected in a social situation. While it is normal to feel nervous before a presentation or performance, people with social anxiety disorder tend to feel worried for days or weeks leading up to particular event or situation, and may avoid the situation altogether. Those suffering with social anxiety disorder may also feel persistently worried about acting or appearing visibly anxious or awkward, or being viewed as stupid, unusual, or boring, and while they may acknowledge that their fear is excessive or unreasonable, they are often powerless in stopping it. Social Anxiety disorder can also elicit a number of strong physical symptoms, including rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating. Social anxiety disorder is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder, and affects approximately 15 million American adults every year.

4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Of the six major types of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the only one that involves engaging in repetitive compulsions or obsessions, as opposed to fearing or avoiding triggers. Obsessions involve having repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety, whereas compulsions involve repetitive behaviours that a person with the disorder feels the urge to perform in response to an obsessive thought. While everyone has rituals or habits, like checking that the door is locked or that the porch light is off, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder can’t control their thoughts or behaviours and experiences significant problems in their daily life due to these thoughts and behaviours. Similarly to social anxiety disorder, individuals with OCD can recognise that their behaviours are excessive or unwarranted, but often feel powerless in stopping from carrying them out.

5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develop this disorder after experiencing a shocking, scary or dangerous event.  While many people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lifetimes, only around 8% of people will experience PTSD. It is normal to feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed after a traumatic event, PTSD is thought to develop if these symptoms persist for more than one month. Along with feelings of stress, anxiety and overwhelm, individuals suffering from PTSD might experience a host of other symptoms, including recurring thoughts or nightmares about the event, trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, difficult making decisions, anger, guilt, and feeling scattered and unfocused.

6. Phobias

In contrast to GAD, phobia disorders are not generalised at all, but rather revolve around specific situations or things. Specific phobias involve strong, irrational fears of a host of objects, people, animals, or situations. People suffering from specific phobias often feel overwhelming, disruptive and exaggerated fear that can cause difficulty functioning normally at work, school, in personal relationships, or in your everyday life. Most phobias arise unexpectedly and onset is usually sudden — even the thought of the specific phobia can cause severe anxiety.

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What to do if you think you may suffer from anxiety?

No one should have to live with severe and persistent anxiety. Many at-home relaxation techniques and exercises exist to help manage and overcome anxiety disorders, as well as cognitive behavioural therapies, that can produce consistent and long-lasting improvements. Eventually, with treatment, most people are able to manage their anxiety and feel more comfortable facing their triggers. It is important to be able to recognise the symptoms of your anxiety and take the proper steps to dealing with them. However, if symptoms persist, it’s important to talk to your doctor about options.

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