HOW TO DEAL WITH ANXIETY.
Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a normal emotion. For example, you may feel nervous when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision.
Anxiety disorders are different, though. They are a group of mental illnesses, and the distress they cause can keep you from carrying on with your life normally.
For people who have one, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. But with treatment, many people can manage those feelings and get back to a fulfilling life.
All anxiety disorders share some general symptoms:
- Panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Sleep problems
- Not being able to stay calm and still
- Cold, sweaty, numb or tingling hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Tense muscles
“Researchers don’t know exactly what brings on anxiety disorders. Like other forms of mental illness, they stem from a combination of things, including changes in your brain and environmental stress, and even your genes. The disorders can run in families and could be linked to faulty circuits in the brain that control fear and other emotions.”
If you have symptoms, your doctor will examine you and ask for your medical history. She may run tests to rule out medical illnesses that might be causing your symptoms. No lab tests can specifically diagnose anxiety disorders.
One of the most common symptoms of an anxiety disorder is excessive worrying.
The worrying associated with anxiety disorders is disproportionate to the events that trigger it and typically occurs in response to normal, everyday situations
To be considered a sign of generalized anxiety disorder, the worrying must occur on most days for at least six months and be difficult to control.
The worrying must also be severe and intrusive, making it difficult to concentrate and accomplish daily tasks.
People under the age of 65 are at the highest risk of generalized anxiety disorder, especially those who are single, have a lower socioeconomic status and have many life stressors .
“Excessive worrying about daily matters is a hallmark of generalized anxiety disorder, especially if it is severe enough to interfere with daily life and persists almost daily for at least six months.”
2. Feeling Agitated
When someone is feeling anxious, part of their sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive.
This kicks off a cascade of effects throughout the body, such as a racing pulse, sweaty palms, shaky hands and dry mouth.
These symptoms occur because your brain believes you have sensed danger, and it is preparing your body to react to the threat.
Your body shunts blood away from your digestive system and toward your muscles in case you need to run or fight. It also increases your heart rate and heightens your senses.
While these effects would be cooperative in the case of a true threat, they can be debilitating if the fear is all in your head.
Some research even suggests that people with anxiety disorders are not able to reduce their arousal as quickly as people without anxiety disorders, which means they may feel the effects of anxiety for a longer period of time.
“A rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking and dry mouth are all common symptoms of anxiety. People with anxiety disorders may experience this type of arousal for extended periods of time.”
Restlessness is another common symptom of anxiety, especially in children and teens.
When someone is experiencing restlessness, they often describe it as feeling “on edge” or having an “uncomfortable urge to move.”
One study in 128 children diagnosed with anxiety disorders found that 74% reported restlessness as one of their main anxiety symptoms.
While restlessness does not occur in all people with anxiety, it is one of the red flags doctors frequently look for when making a diagnosis.
If you experience restlessness on the majority of days for more than six months, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
“Restlessness alone is not enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder, but it can be one symptom, especially if it occurs frequently.”
Becoming easily fatigued is another potential symptom of generalized anxiety disorder.
This symptom can be surprising to some, as anxiety is commonly associated with hyperactivity or arousal.
For some, fatigue can follow an anxiety attack, while for others, the fatigue can be chronic.
It’s unclear whether this fatigue is due to other common symptoms of anxiety, such as insomnia or muscle tension, or whether it may be related to the hormonal effects of chronic anxiety.
However, it is important to note that fatigue can also be a sign of depression or other medical conditions, so fatigue alone is not enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder .
“Fatigue can be a sign of an anxiety disorder if it is accompanied by excessive worrying. However, it can also indicate other medical disorders.”
5. Difficulty Concentrating
Many people with anxiety report having difficulty concentrating.
One study including 157 children and teens with generalized anxiety disorder found that more than two-thirds had difficulty concentrating.
Another study in 175 adults with the same disorder found that almost 90% reported having difficulty concentrating. The worse their anxiety was, the more trouble they had .
Some studies show that anxiety can interrupt working memory, a type of memory responsible for holding short-term information. This may help explain the dramatic decrease in performance people often experience during periods of high anxiety.
However, difficulty concentrating can also be a symptom of other medical conditions, such as an attention deficit disorder or depression, so it is not enough evidence to diagnose an anxiety disorder.
“Difficulty concentrating can be one sign of an anxiety disorder, and it is a reported symptom in the majority of people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.”
Most people with anxiety disorders also experience excessive irritability.
According to one recent study including over 6,000 adults, more than 90% of those with generalized anxiety disorder reported feeling highly irritable during periods when their anxiety disorder was at its worst.
Compared to self-reported worriers, young and middle-aged adults with generalized anxiety disorder reported more than twice as much irritability in their day-to-day lives.
Given that anxiety is associated with high arousal and excessive worrying, it is not surprising that irritability is a common symptom.
“Most people with generalized anxiety disorder report feeling highly irritable, especially when their anxiety is at its peak.”
7. Tense Muscles
Having tense muscles on most days of the week is another frequent symptom of anxiety.
While tense muscles may be common, it’s not fully understood why they’re associated with anxiety.
It is possible that muscle tenseness itself increases feelings of anxiety, but it is also possible that anxiety leads to increased muscle tenseness, or that a third factor causes both.
Interestingly, treating muscle tension with muscle relaxation therapy has been shown to reduce worry in people with generalized anxiety disorder. Some studies even show it to be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Muscle tension is strongly linked to anxiety, but the direction of the relationship is not well understood. Treating muscle tension has been shown to help reduce symptoms of worry.”
8. Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep
Sleep disturbances are strongly associated with anxiety disorders.
Waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble falling asleep are the two most commonly reported problems
Some research suggests that having insomnia during childhood may even be linked to developing anxiety later in life.
A study following nearly 1,000 children over 20 years found that having insomnia in childhood was linked to a 60% increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder by age 26
While insomnia and anxiety are strongly linked, it is unclear whether insomnia contributes to anxiety, if anxiety contributes to insomnia, or both
What is known is that when the underlying anxiety disorder is treated, insomnia often improves as well.
“Sleep problems are very common in people with anxiety. Treating the anxiety can usually help improve sleep quality as well.”
9. Panic Attacks
One type of anxiety disorder called panic disorder is associated with recurring panic attacks.
Panic attacks produce an intense, overwhelming sensation of fear that can be debilitating.
This extreme fear is typically accompanied by rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea and fear of dying or losing control.
Panic attacks can happen in isolation, but if they occur frequently and unexpectedly, they may be a sign of panic disorder.
An estimated 22% of American adults will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives, but only about 3% experience them frequently enough to meet the criteria for panic disorder.
“Panic attacks produce extremely intense feelings of fear, accompanied by unpleasant physical symptoms. Recurring panic attacks may be a sign of panic disorder.”
10. Avoiding Social Situations
You may be exhibiting signs of social anxiety disorder if you find yourself:
- Feeling anxious or fearful about upcoming social situations
- Worried that you may be judged or scrutinized by others
- Fearful of being embarrassed or humiliated in front of others
- Avoiding certain social events because of these fears
Social anxiety disorder is very common, affecting roughly 12% of American adults at some point in their lives.
Social anxiety tends to develop early in life. In fact, about 50% of those who have it are diagnosed by age 11, while 80% are diagnosed by age 20.
People with social anxiety may appear extremely shy and quiet in groups or when meeting new people. While they may not appear distressed on the outside, inside they feel extreme fear and anxiety.
This aloofness can sometimes make people with social anxiety appear snobby or standoffish, but the disorder is associated with low self-esteem, high self-criticism and depression.
“Fear and avoidance of social situations may be a sign of social anxiety disorder, one of the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders.”
11. Irrational Fears
Extreme fears about specific things, such as spiders, enclosed spaces or heights, could be a sign of a phobia.
A phobia is defined as extreme anxiety or fear about a specific object or situation. The feeling is severe enough that it interferes with your ability to function normally.
Some common phobias include:
Animal phobias: Fear of specific animals or insects
Natural environment phobias: Fear of natural events like hurricanes or floods
Blood-injection-injury phobias: Fear of blood, injections, needles or injuries
Situational phobias: Fear of certain situations like an airplane or elevator ride
Agoraphobia is another phobia that involves fear of at least two of the following:
- Using public transportation
- Being in open spaces
- Being in enclosed spaces
- Standing in line or being in a crowd
- Being outside of the home alone
Phobias affect 12.5% of Americans at some point in their lives. They tend to develop in childhood or the teenage years and are more common in women than men.
“Irrational fears that interrupt daily functioning may be a sign of a specific phobia. There are many types of phobias, but all involve avoidance behavior and feelings of extreme fear.”
Natural Ways to Reduce Anxiety
There are many natural ways reduce anxiety and help you feel better, including:
Eating a healthy diet:
Diets rich in vegetables, fruits, high-quality meats, fish, nuts and whole grains can lower the risk of developing anxiety disorders, but diet alone is probably not enough to treat them.
Consuming probiotics and fermented foods:
Taking probiotics and eating fermented foods have been associated with improved mental health.
Excessive caffeine intake may worsen feelings of anxiety in some people, especially those with anxiety disorders.
Abstaining from alcohol:
Anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse are strongly linked, so it may help to stay away from alcoholic beverages.
Smoking is associated with an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Quitting is associated with improved mental health.
Regular exercise is linked to a lower risk of developing an anxiety disorder, but research is mixed on whether it helps those who have already been diagnosed.
One type of meditation-based therapy called mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms in people with anxiety disorders.
Regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce symptoms in people diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but more high-quality research is needed.
Consuming a nutrient-dense diet, quitting psychoactive substances and implementing stress-management techniques can all help reduce symptoms of anxiety.
When to Seek Professional Help
Anxiety can be debilitating, so it’s important to seek professional help if your symptoms are severe.
If you feel anxious on the majority of days and experience one or more of the symptoms listed above for at least six months, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Regardless of how long you have been experiencing symptoms, if you ever feel like your emotions are interfering with your life, you should seek professional help.
Licensed psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to treat anxiety disorders through a variety of means.
This often includes cognitive behavioral therapy, anti-anxiety medications or some of the natural therapies listed above.
Working with a professional can help you manage your anxiety and reduce your symptoms as quickly and safely as possible.
If you are experiencing chronic symptoms of anxiety that are interfering with your life, it is important to seek professional help.