Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on December 28, 2017

Anxiety Symptoms That Many People Overlook

Anxiety Symptoms That Many People Overlook

“Anxious” is a word with two faces. Sometimes it means eager excitement. “I’m anxious to see you!” we say, as we get off the phone with a friend who’s coming to visit. The other side of “anxious” is a bit darker: “I’m anxious about that test,” we say, when we’re worried about the results. We call the second meaning “anxiety,” and most of us experience it from time to time.

In common usage, both meanings of “anxious” describe our responses to fleeting, time-limited events. But anxiety can also have a much more powerful grip on many of us. Without the right kind of attention, it can rule our lives.

I’m a psychotherapist in private practice north of Boston, Massachusetts, and I’ve worked with many clients who have anxiety. In this, the first of two articles on a psychotherapist’s views on anxiety, I’ll describe what anxiety is and how you can tell whether you or someone close to you is suffering from it. In Part II, I’ll go into its causes and treatments, as well as the best ways to help heal from anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is more common than people think

More people in the United States have anxiety disorders than any other mental illness. Anxiety affects more than 40 million adult Americans and about one in eight children. Some experts put the estimate much higher, because many people don’t know they have anxiety, are diagnosed incorrectly, or don’t seek help for it.

In my psychotherapy practice, nearly all my clients have some form of anxiety. Sometimes it’s the main reason they came to therapy, and sometimes it’s an underlying issue that shows up after we’ve handled the immediate reason they came for help.

Advertising

Only about one-third of people who have anxiety disorders seek treatment.

Many anxious people know they have anxiety, but many more do not. They think catastrophizing, expecting the worst, worrying about what people think of them, or staying up late at night worrying about just about everything is normal.

It feels normal because that’s what they’ve been used to most of their lives – but it doesn’t have to be. Most people with an anxiety disorder can overcome it with treatment, support, and self-help strategies.

The difference between feeling worried and having anxiety

An anxiety disorder is different from feeling worried or being afraid. Worries about new or uncertain situations are normal, and feeling afraid in potentially dangerous situations is not only normal, but can sometimes save your life. Worrying about how you will perform on an exam might motivate you to study harder. Worrying about an erratic driver in front of you might help you drive more defensively. Feeling fearful about driving on a winding road in a storm might get you to wait for safer weather conditions.

Also, not everybody who worries a lot has an anxiety disorder. You might feel anxious because of too much work, too much stress, too little sleep, too much coffee, or low blood sugar.

Advertising

The biggest distinction between normal worry or fear and anxiety disorders is that anxiety disorders involve some form of chronic anxiety, and the anxiety interferes with normal functioning.

7 specific anxiety disorders

There are several kinds of anxiety disorders, and they each look and feel different from one another. One person might have intense panic, another might avoid social situations, another might be unreasonably frightened by dogs, and someone else might worry about nearly everything.

All anxiety disorders share a persistent fear or worry in situations where most people would not be afraid. Specific anxiety disorders have other, specific symptoms.

1. Social Phobia

People with social phobias are afraid of embarrassment or judgement in social situations and may blush, feel tongue-tied, go blank, have rapid heart rate, or show other signs of anxiety in those situations. They will avoid social situations whenever possible.

2. Special Phobias

People with special phobias might be unreasonably afraid of animals such as dogs or spiders, natural events like storms or lightning, heights, open spaces, enclosed spaces, and other parts of the normal world. They may go to extremes to avoid these things.

Advertising

3. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can include feeling nervous most of the time, a sense of impending doom, feeling helpless, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, a queasy feeling, and tension in the neck, shoulders, or both.

4. Acute Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Both of these anxiety disorders sometimes occur after people have witnessed or experienced a physical threat. Symptoms include disturbing memories, flashbacks of the event, trouble sleeping or concentrating, and feeling either tense or numb. Acute Stress Disorder symptoms begin within a month of the traumatic event, while PTSD symptoms typically begin later. Symptoms can last for many years without treatment.

5. Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have unexpected, severe anxiety attacks during which they are afraid they might die, pass out, or that they are suffocating. They often avoid places where panic attacks occur, which can lead to agoraphobia.

6. Hypochondria

People with hypochondria (now called Illness Anxiety Disorder) worry about having illnesses they probably don’t have. They catastrophize minor or imagined symptoms into a worst-case scenario. For example, they may be convinced that a headache means they have a fatal brain tumor.

7. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Sufferers may check obsessively, count when counting is unnecessary, and in general do ritualized behaviors. They feel unbearably anxious if they do not perform these rituals.

Advertising

The most common anxiety disorders, in approximately this order, are: Social Phobia, Specific Phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Acute and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Panic Disorder, Hypochondria, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

In my practice, I most often encounter Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD, though I have also had many clients with Panic Disorder, Hypochondria, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Sometimes, people come in with more than one anxiety disorder. Hypochondria and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, for example, often show up in the same person, as do Social Anxiety Disorder and perfectionism which, though not an “official” anxiety disorder, contributes greatly to most forms of anxiety.

Signs of anxiety disorders

If you identify with any of the following symptoms, you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder.

  • You’re almost always worried or on edge.
  • You have irrational fears that you just can’t shake.
  • You’re often afraid that bad things will happen if you don’t do things in a particular way.
  • You avoid everyday situations or activities because they make you anxious.
  • You have sudden, unpredictable attacks of heart-pounding panic.
  • You almost always expect the worst.
  • You have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
  • Your muscles almost always feel tense.
  • You often feel overwhelmed.
  • You expect more from yourself than most people do
  • You tend to focus on your health and personal problems more than other things in your life.
  • Your anxiety interferes with work, school, or family life.
  • You have one or more of the following physical symptoms: pounding heart, sweating when you’re not exercising or in a warm place, headaches, frequent upset stomach or diarrhea, dizziness, shortness of breath, shaking or trembling.

Some anxiety disorders are harder to spot

In my experience with psychotherapy clients, PTSD is usually the most difficult to spot because its symptoms don’t always cleanly match the standard definition. PTSD can look like depression, several other forms of anxiety disorder, ADHD, or a combination of mental illnesses.

An example: I once worked with a client who seemed to cycle through several anxiety disorders within a few months. She first displayed typical signs of panic disorder, and we quickly worked through them. But then OCD symptoms appeared. Again, we worked through them in what seemed like record time. Irrational fears and intrusive, disturbing thoughts soon followed.

It was a few months before we understood that what she was actually suffering from was the aftermath of childhood trauma. She had what I now think of as free-floating anxiety – a form of anxiety that unconsciously attaches itself to other anxiety syndromes. A clue to understanding how to help her was that she had majored in psychology and knew about various mental illnesses. Her half-remembered knowledge of common anxiety disorders gave her free-floating anxiety a place to focus. Working through the trauma helped her resolve all her anxiety symptoms.

Stay tuned!

In this article, we’ve looked at how worrying and fear are different from anxiety disorders and have identified the main symptoms of common anxiety disorders. In Part II of this two-part series, we’ll go into the causes of anxiety disorders, their treatments, and some self-help practices people with anxiety disorders and their loved ones can do.

More by this author

David J. Bookbinder, LMHC

Psychotherapist, writer, and photographer north of Boston, MA.

Anxiety Symptoms That Many People Overlook The Best Anxiety Treatment I’d Recommend as a Psychotherapist

Trending in Psychology

1Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts 2Being in Narcissism Relationships Is Like Playing With Fire. It Is Risky. 313 Crippling Social Anxiety Symptoms Explained & How to Deal with Them 48 Powerful Reasons to Love Your Enemies 5Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

Published on July 13, 2018

Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts

Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts

What if you could discover some tools and methods that could improve your relationships? What if by gaining a little knowledge you could understand your relationship dynamics better and give them a boost up?

By learning what secure attachment is and how to restructure your thoughts, you can become more self-aware of your relationship dynamics. After becoming more aware, you can then take a few steps to make them better than ever. That’s something that many of us could benefit from.

When we hear the term secure attachment, our mind typically goes to a relationship. And that’s exactly what it’s about.

In this article I’ll discuss the concept of secure attachments in more detail and how restructuring your thoughts can help you strive towards achieving better relationships.

Relationships are a hugely important part of our lives and whatever we can do to improve them is a good thing for everyone involved.

What is attachment theory?

Let’s do a quick overview of what attachment theory is. This will provide a good foundation for the rest of this article.

The esteemed psychologist John Bowlby first coined the term attachment theory in the late 60’s. Bowlby studied early childhood conditioning extensively and what he found was very interesting.

His research showed that when a very young child has a strong attachment to a caregiver, it provides the child with a sense of security and foundation. On the other hand when there isn’t a secure attachment, the child will expend a lot more developmental energy looking for security and stability.

The child without the secure attachment tends to become more fearful, timid and slow to explore new situations or their environment.

Advertising

When a strong attachment is developed in a child, he or she will be inclined to be more adventurous and seek out new experiences because they feel more secure. They know that whoever is watching out for them will be there if needed.

Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth, took the theory further. She did extensive studies around infant-parent separations and provided a more formal framework for the differing attachment styles.

How attachment develops

Simply put, attachment is an emotional bond with another person. Attachment doesn’t have to go both ways, it can be one person feeling attached to another without it being reciprocated. Most of the time, it works between two people to one degree or another.

Attachment begins at a very young age. Over the history of time, when children were able to maintain a closer proximity to a caregiver that provided for them, a strong attachment was formed.

The initial thought was that the ability to provide food or nourishment to a child was the primary driver of a strong attachment.

It was then discovered that the primary drivers of attachment proved to be the parent/caregivers responsiveness to the child as well as the ability to nurture that child in a variety of ways. Things such as support, care, sustenance, and protection are all components of nurturing a child.

In essence a child forms a strong attachment when they feel that their caregiver is accessible and attentive and there if they need them; that the parent/caregiver will be there for them. If the child does not feel that the caregiver is there to help them when needed, they experience anxiety.

Different types of attachments

In children, 4 types of attachment styles have been identified. They are as follows:

  • Secure attachment – This is primarily marked by discomfort or distress when separated from caregivers and joy and security when the caregiver is back around the child. Even though the child initially feels agitated when the caregiver is no longer around, they feel confident they will return. The return of the parent or caregiver is met with positive emotions, the child prefers parents to strangers.
  • Ambivalent attachment – These children become very distressed when the parent or caregiver leaves. They feel they can’t rely on their caregiver for support when the need arises. Even though a child with ambivalent attachment may be agitated or confused when reunited with a parent or caregiver, they will cling to them.
  • Avoidant attachment – These kids typically avoid parents or caregivers. When they have a choice of being with the parent or not, they don’t seem to care one way or the other. Research has shown that this may be the result of neglectful caregivers.
  • Disorganized attachment – These children display a mix of disoriented behavior towards their caregiver. They may want them sometimes and other times they don’t. This is sometimes thought to be linked to inconsistent behavior from the parent or caregiver.

What attachments mean to adults

So the big question is how does this affect us in adulthood? Intuitively it makes sense that as a child, if we have someone who will be there when we need them, we feel secure. And on the other end of the spectrum, if we aren’t sure someone’s going to provide what we need when we need it, we may become more anxious and fearful.

Advertising

As an adult, we tend to wind up in one of three primary attachment types based on our childhood experiences. These are secure, avoidant, and anxious. Technically, there is a fourth one, anxious-avoidant, but it is quite a bit less common. They are described as follows:

  • Secure – When you have a secure attachment, you are comfortable displaying interest and affection towards another person but you’re also fine being alone and independent. Secure types are less apt to obsess over a relationship gone sour and handle being rejected easier. Secure types also tend to be better than other types with not starting relationships with people that might not be the best partners. They cut off the relationship quicker when they see things in a potential partner they don’t like. Secure attachment people make up the majority of the attachment types.
  • Anxious – Folks who have an anxious attachment style typically need a lot of reassurance from their partners. They have a much harder time being on their own and single than the other styles and fall into bad relationships more often. The anxious style represent about 20% of the population. It’s been shown that if anxious attachment styles learn how to communicate their needs better and learn to date secure partners, they can move towards the secure attachment style.
  • Avoidant – Avoidant attachment style represents approximately 25% of the population as adults. Avoidants many times have the hardest time in a relationship because they have a difficult time finding satisfaction. In general, they are uncomfortable with close relationships and intimacy and are quite independent. They are the lone wolf type person.
  • Anxious-avoidant – The anxious-avoidant style is relatively rare. It is composed of conflicting styles – they want to be close but at the same time push people away. They do things that push the people they are closest to away. Many times there can be a higher risk of depression or other mental health issues.

Here’s where it gets really interesting:

Move towards secure attachment

The good news is that it is possible to move from one style to another. Specifically, it is possible to move towards a more secure attachment style.

Now as you might imagine, this is not an easy or a quick process. Like any type of big change where you are attempting to alter such a deeply ingrained mindset, it takes a strong will to accomplish.

The first step is developing an awareness of your attachment style. The next step is to have the desire and drive to move your attachment style towards the more secure style.

If someone with an anxious or avoidant style has a long term relationship with a secure type, the anxious or avoidant person can slowly get brought up more towards a secure style.

The opposite is also true, they could bring the secure person more towards their attachment style. Therefore, you have to be conscious of your type and if you want to move more towards secure, it takes persistence.

Therapy is an option as well. Anxious types many times need to work on their self-esteem, avoidants on their connection specifically and compassion.

How to restructure your thoughts

Ready for the way to do it? Here we go:

Advertising

For the Avoidant Style

As with any type of change on such a deep level, the first step is awareness. Realize you have an avoidant style and be aware of it as you have interactions with your partner(s).

Try to work towards a place of mutual support and giving/taking. Try to lessen your need for complete self-reliance. Allow your partner to do some things that make you a little uncomfortable that you would normally do yourself.

Don’t always focus on the imperfections of your partner. We all have them, remind yourself of that.

Make yourself a list of the qualities that your partner has that you are thankful for.

Look for a secure style partner if at all possible, they would be good for you to be with.

If you have a tendency to end relationships before they go too far, be aware of that and let it develop further.

Get into the habit of accepting and even instigating physical touch. Tell yourself that it’s good for you to have some intimacy. Intimacy can help you feel safe and secure.

And over time you can realize that it’s okay to rely on other people.

For the Anxious Style

For the anxious style, the #1 thing to work on is learning to communicate needs better. This is a huge issue for the anxious style.

Advertising

First and foremost if you communicate your needs more clearly, you will have less anxiety, that’s already a big win. This will also allow you to better assess if a potential partner is good for you.

Try to bring your feelings more to the surface and most importantly, share them with your partner. Remember that secure attachments typically communicate pretty well, this is what you are working towards.

For the Anxious-Avoidant Style

The anxious-avoidant is a very small percentage of the attachment styles. Since this type tends to be anxious in the relationship AND more or less a loner, the key here is working hard to be very self-aware of your actions.

Use the parts of striving towards secure attachment from the anxious tips and the avoidant restructuring of your thoughts to consciously work towards being more secure.

When you find yourself pushing someone away, ask why. If you feel worried that your partner is going to leave you, again, ask yourself where this is coming from. Have they shown you any reason to believe this? Many times there is no real evidence. In that case, allow yourself to calm down and try not to obsess over it.

For the Secure Style

Since the goal is to move towards a more secure attachment style, there isn’t much needed here as you might imagine.

Something to be aware of is being in a relationship just because it’s “okay”. Don’t stay if it’s not a good place for you and your partner. If your partner is of an anxious or avoidant attachment style, stay mindful to not start developing characteristics of those styles.

Strive towards Secure Attachment

As we wrap things up, you’ve probably developed a good idea of the benefits of secure attachment. If you don’t currently have a secure attachment style, here are some benefits of restructuring your thoughts more towards this style:

  • Positive self esteem and self image
  • Close and well adjusted relationships
  • Sense of security in self and the world
  • Ability to be independent as well as in relationships
  • Optimistic outlook on life and yourself
  • Strong coping skills and strategies for relationships and life
  • Trust in self and others
  • Close, intimate relationships
  • Strong determination and problem solving skills

If you are an anxious or avoidant style or the combination of anxious-avoidant, it is possible to move towards a secure attachment style.

It takes self-awareness, patience and a strong desire to get close to being secure but it can be done. You will find that putting the effort into it will provide you with more open, honest and satisfying relationships.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Read Next