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What Does Anxiety Feel Like? (Types and Symptoms of the Invisible Killer)

What Does Anxiety Feel Like? (Types and Symptoms of the Invisible Killer)

At some stages in their lives, as many as 40 million US adults will experience anxiety disorders. That figure, from a report by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America can practically be doubled when taking into account cases of anxiety from around the world.

Yet despite impacting the lives of so many people from across the globe, anxiety remains a misunderstood illness, particularly among two key groups of people: Those who aren’t sure whether the debilitating symptoms they’re experiencing are a sign of anxiety or not; and those whose friends and loved ones are living with anxiety.

Whichever camp you fall into, those first throes of an anxiety disorder are enough to set your mind racing with questions:

  • What does anxiety feel like?
  • How do I know if I actually have it?
  • What can I do to stop an anxiety disorder ruining my life?
  • What can I do to support someone else with their anxiety?

Here, we’ll look into the answers to all of the most common questions about the causes, symptoms and solutions of this most misunderstood of mental illnesses.

Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder

The most common misconception about this illness is that all anxiety is bad. The truth is, a little bit of anxiety can be helpful.

If we start to get anxious about an important exam or a job interview, for example, that’s our body’s way of reminding us that we should do all we can to be prepared and ensure we get the desired outcome.

This is a gift left to us by our ancestors who needed anxiety to trigger a fight or flight response when faced with all manner of wild beasts and dangerous situations that threatened their very survival.

Today, the dangers we face are unlikely to involve potentially being torn limb from limb by a wild beast, but we do still need the fight or flight response to help us make decisions about the best way to survive. If the building we are in catches fire, for example, anxiety is the thing that says “Hey, you know what? We’d better get out of here!”

However, problems arise when our brains and bodies start acting as if we are in a burning building even when we are perfectly safe. In other words, when the level of anxiety we feel is disproportionate to the danger (or in most cases lack of danger) we are in.

When this happens, we are faced with what’s called an anxiety disorder, which can take many different forms.

Different types of anxiety disorders

Whilst a number of common symptoms can occur with all types of disorders, it would be unhelpful to simply give you one blanket answer to the most important question we are addressing here: What does anxiety feel like?

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The truth is that different anxiety disorders occur for different reasons, typically bringing about their own (occasionally overlapping symptoms). If we’re going to tackle your anxiety or that of someone you care about, it’s helpful to look at some of the most common anxiety disorders in turn.

General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

This is the most common form of anxiety disorder. It’s what a lot of people typically think of when they think of anxiety. Affecting one in five American adults at some stage in their lives, GAD is typically more common in women, but that doesn’t mean to say men are immune from it.

Unlike other forms of disorders which can be triggered by a single situation or event, GAD usually leaves you feeling anxious about lots of different things on a regular basis, possibly even every single day.

Experts suggest a wide range of causes for GAD, ranging from an imbalance of Serotonin and noradrenaline to traumatic experiences and substance abuse, though it frequently occurs for no specific reason.

What we can be certain of are the signs and symptoms of General Anxiety Disorder. At a physical level, these can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tight chest
  • Muscle tension
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Trembling or shaking

Meanwhile, the mental and emotional side of GAD can leave you feeling restless and permanently “on edge,” as though your body were overrun with adrenalin. Some people with GAD also report feeling a general sense of doom and despair, or even anger.

Panic Disorder

As the name suggests, someone with a panic disorder will have regular panic attacks even if those attacks aren’t triggered by anything in particular.

Panic attacks can be intense, coming up on you seemingly from out of nowhere and completely paralyzing you.

Though the fear and stress that arise when you go through a panic attack can be incredibly powerful, it’s the physical sensations of an attack that are the most overwhelming. These sensations might include:

  • Feeling choked or short of breath
  • Hyperventilating
  • Feeling like your heart is pounding so hard it might burst through your chest
  • Chest pains
  • Tingling sensations/pins and needles
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling incredibly hot and sweating.

The intensity of these physical changes can be terrifying and leave you feeling like something terrible is going to happen to you. The good news is that although it may seem as though an attack is lasting forever, most dissipate within twenty minutes and nothing bad will happen to you as a result.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Not to be mistaken with simply shyness or an introverted personality type, Social Anxiety Disorder is a crippling fear of social situations. This doesn’t just mean big occasions like parties or being around large groups, but everyday situations like going to the supermarket or even talking on the telephone.

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Experts have suggested that this disorder, also known as Social Phobia, can be caused by a combination of both physical and environmental factors ranging from an imbalance of Serotonin (the brain chemical that regulates mood) to a past history of being bullied or sexually abused. However, like most mental health issues, an exact cause remains largely unknown.

What we do know, is what Social Anxiety Disorder feels like. People with this order usually feel an immense amount of dread about situations which involves interacting with other people. This may be so bad that they avoid such situations altogether.

If you have Social Phobia and you do go into social situations, you may have the overwhelming feeling that people are watching you all the time, or be constantly worried about doing something embarrassing.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling incredibly hot and sweating
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Panic attacks

Phobic Disorders

Social phobias are typically classed as a phobic disorder, as are some of the more widely-known phobias such as Claustrophobia (fear of small spaces) and Arachnophobia (fear of spiders). Any persistent fear and avoidance of a specific thing or situation can be classed as a phobia disorder, particularly if it impacts a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day level.

Though we often think of phobias as “irrational” fears, this isn’t always the best word to describe them. For someone living with this disorder, the phobia is often the result of a traumatic event, making it -to them- completely rational.

What does anxiety feel like in this case?

The most overwhelming feeling is, of course, that of absolute fright when confronted by the fear-inducing object or situation, even if it’s only a picture, video or someone talking about it. This fright can manifest itself physically, often in the form of a panic attack, with much of the same symptoms as listed above.

In instances where the phobia is so bad that it limits a person’s ability to function and enjoy life such as social phobia or agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), it can also lead to crippling depression and other long-term issues.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Thankfully, much more is known about PTSD these days than there was just a few years ago. It is now widely regarded as one of the most crippling of anxiety disorders.

As the name implies, PTSD is caused by going through an incredibly traumatic or stressful event, often leaving the person to experience night terrors and/or flashbacks.

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Given the high number of military personnel reported to have PTSD, it is tempting to think of it as only affecting those who have served in combat, though that isn’t the case. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can impact those who have experienced a wide variety of distressing situations including:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Road traffic accidents
  • Robberies and assaults

Along with vivid re-experiencing of the traumatic event itself, PTSD symptoms also include:

  • Insomnia
  • Hyperarousal (being constantly on the lookout for threats)
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn as a coping mechanism to avoid feeling the pain of PTSD

What can I do if I (Or someone I care about) Have an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are treatable, and there are lots of things you can do to stop anxiety from impacting your quality of life. Here, we will look at some of the most common anti-anxiety activities, strategies and techniques you could put to work from today.

Self-help tips

1. Limit caffeine and alcohol

Both substances can lead to heightened anxiety and even cause panic attacks.

2. Try chamomile tea

Chamomile tea has wonderful soothing properties that can make you feel calm and relaxed, and even help you sleep.

3. Exercise

Never underestimate the power of getting active when it comes to combating anxiety.

If social anxiety disorder means you can’t face hitting the gym, you can always start with a gentle walk, riding a bike or even practising yoga at home.

That said, anything that gets you out in the fresh air is going to do you the world of good. Any chance you can take to get active outdoors will boost your mood and leave you naturally more tired. This can be very helpful if your anxiety is causing you insomnia and other sleep issues.

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4. Try breathing exercises, yoga, and/or meditation

There’s a reason so many mental health professionals recommend breathing exercises and meditation to combat anxiety — they’re incredibly effective.

Youtube is full of videos offering breathing and meditation techniques, though if you are feeling up to it, you might want to consider finding a local meditation or yoga group. The chances are that you will find other people who joined for the same reason as you did and can build a valuable support network of people who really ‘get it.’

Treatment

5. Talk to your doctor

Depending on the type of anxiety you are dealing with, some doctors may write a prescription for powerful medication that can reduce anxiety. Of course, not everybody wants to go down the route of getting medicated, but that shouldn’t stop you from making an appointment.

In fact, for many, visiting the doctor can be the first opportunity they get to open up about their issue. This in itself can be a big help. Your doctor may also be able to make a referral for other forms of treatment, such as therapy.

6. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

Highly effective in tackling anxiety disorders, CBT is a directive, hands-on approach to therapy in which your therapist will help you develop useful skills and strategies for managing and reducing the impact of your anxiety so that you can live a fulfilling and happy life.

Anxiety doesn’t have to control your life

Though anxiety may feel like an all-consuming terror tearing through people’s lives, even at its worse it can’t physically kill anyone. That said it can control your life to such an extent that it kills off any sense of enjoyment or fulfilment that you would otherwise get from being alive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Far from being an invisible killer that keeps you locked up inside your own home (or, worse, inside your own mind), anxiety can be controlled, reduced and even eliminated entirely.

One day, one step, one moment at a time, you too can free yourself from the clutches of anxiety and begin to really make the most of life in a way you may never have dreamed possible.

Featured photo credit: pixabay via pixabay.com

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Chris Skoyles

Coach, and trainee counsellor specializing in mental health and addiction.

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Last Updated on May 21, 2019

13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

Creating your productivity ritual — a routine that helps you to maintain a peak level of energy can get you the best out of your days.

Part of creating your productivity routine involves removing activities that drain you (what I call “kryptonites”), and that includes your bad habits.

Like it or not, bad habits are bad for you — mentally, physically, emotionally and even socially in some cases. While some bad habits are harder to quit than others, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to get rid of them. Here are 13 bad habits to quit right away:

1. Stress Eating

I used to be a serious stress eater. I would eat whenever I felt unhappy, stressed, disappointed, anxious, or even… happy! My eating had nothing to do with being hungry, and everything to do with using food to fill my emotional voids.

While eating would comfort me, this feeling was momentary and would disappear right after I was done eating. Instead, what I had left would be the same emotional void that triggered me to eat in the first place (be it unhappiness or stress), a 2,000 excess calorie intake over what I should have eaten for the day, and anger at myself for having stress ate.

I’ve since overcome stress eating. I have healthy eating habits and a healthy relationship with food today where I no longer use food as a tool to fill my emotions.

If you are a stress eater, don’t fret — here’s how to manage your stress better:

How to Manage Stress (A Step-by-Step Guide to Turn Stress Into Success)

2. Nail Biting

Not only is nail biting unhygienic, it is also socially repelling, leads to dental problems like malocclusion of the anterior teeth,[1] potentially cause stomach problems,[2] and lead to severely deformed fingernails in the long run.

People who bite their nails tend to have shorter nails than the average person; their nail plates also experience scarring and may eventually become absent.[3]

Understand what triggers your nail biting behavior and replace it with another neutral to positive habit. Make habits to break habits.

For example, if you bite your nails when you are stressed, go for a walk or listen to music instead the next time you feel stressed.

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3. Hanging out with Naysayers

We all know these people — people who play devil’s advocate to every idea you have and every goal you want to pursue. We are already our greatest self-critics, so it doesn’t help when there’s someone beside us, ever ready to pounce on what we say and tear it down.

Hang out less with these naysayers and spend more time with supportive people who share constructive feedback instead. You will be much happier this way.

Learn how to get rid of naysayers with these 10 Ways to Ignore the Naysayers and Achieve Your Dreams.

4. Being with People Who Don’t Appreciate You

Haven’t all of us been in this situation before? Trying to please people who don’t appreciate us? Bending over backwards to be there for people when they are never there for us?

While we give without expectations of return, we need to draw a line with people who don’t value us because these people damage our souls.

Stop spending time with people who don’t appreciate you, and spend more time with people who do instead.

Unsure who you should get rid of? Learn about it here: 5 Kinds of Toxic People That You Need to Get Rid of Now

5. Smoking

Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable death globally.[4]

In just the United States alone, about 500,000 deaths are attributed to smoking-related diseases annually. A recent study estimated that as much as one-third of China’s male population will have significantly shortened life-spans due to smoking! Gender-wise, male and female smokers lose an average of 13.2 and 14.5 years of life respectively — that’s over a decade of life right there.[5]

Not only that, smoking causes pre-mature skin aging (i.e. wrinkles), yellowing of teeth, bad breath, and worse of all — jeopardy of the health of people around you, including your loved ones. Studies have shown that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke are at risk to many of the health problems associated with direct smoking.[6]

Smoking risks

    6. Excessive Drinking

    All of us know that drinking too much alcohol is bad for us, but do you know how bad it really is?

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    According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking too much — be it on a single occasion or over time — can seriously damage your health:[7]

    • Brain problems: Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
    • Heart diseases: Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle, Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat, stroke, high blood pressure
    • Liver diseases: Steatosis or fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis
    • Pancreas problems: Pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
    • Different types of cancer: Mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, breast

    If you drink a lot, perhaps cutting it out right away will be tough. Cut down the number of glasses you drink each time, followed by the number of times you drink a week.

    If need be, seek help from an AA group — you aren’t alone in this. Change starts from today.

    7. Eating Junk Food (Including Diet Soda)

    Junk food — they are everywhere in our society today. From McDonald’s, to KFC, to Burger King, to 24-hour takeouts, junk food such as fries, highly processed burgers and sodas has become a staple in our society today.

    If you think, “Hey, but junk food is tasty!”, think again:

    A study by Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny suggests that junk food consumption alters brain activity in a way similar to addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin.[8]

    “After many weeks with unlimited access to junk food, the pleasure centers of rat brains became desensitized, requiring more food for pleasure.”

    And you wonder why you seem to crave fast food when you just had some the day before?

    While it may not be possible to remove junk food completely from our diet right away, we can reduce our junk food consumption starting today. Instead of soda, opt for a fruit juice (fresh juice, not the carbonated kind) or mineral water. Instead of fries, switch to mashed potato, a salad, or rice (many food outlets allow for this today). Instead of a fried meat patty, go for a grilled one.

    Where possible, opt for healthy food joints like salad bars and delis as opposed to fast food outlets. Every little step goes a long way.

    Here’re some healthy snacks ideas for you: 15 Healthy Snacks You Should Always Have At Home

    8. Eating Too Much Red Meat

    There has been conclusive evidence that consumption of red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer; and suggestive evidence that it increases the risk of oesophageal cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and endometrial cancer.

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    In addition, some studies have linked consumption of large quantities of red meat with breast cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, bladder cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer![9]

    Personally, I’m a vegetarian so I don’t consume red meat, but for those of you who consume red meat, do watch out and limit your intake — better still, cut it out of your diet. World Cancer Research Fund recommends limiting intake of red meat to less than 300g (11 oz) cooked weight per week, “very little, if any of which to be processed.”

    Of if you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian, check out this guide: 5 Practical Tips For Starting a Vegetarian Lifestyle

    9. Watching Too Much TV

    I stopped watching TV since eight years ago and I have never regretted it. Every once in a while I will switch on the telly to see what is on, and then I will switch it off because it’s just the same boring shtick over and over again.

    Watching TV, particularly well-written dramas, can be a good way to unwind. However, remember that TV isn’t your life.

    Spending three hours every night watching TV will not change your life for the better. Rather, using that time to reflect on your life, take stock, and take action on your goals will.

    It’s not easy to remove TV from your daily routine right away, but follow these 6 Steps To Remove TV From Your Life.

    10. Being Late

    Not only is being late being rude to others, it also means that you’re always rushing from one place to another, playing catch up in your agenda, and having to apologize to every person you meet.

    Stop being late and not being punctual, but practice being early instead. Target to arrive 15 minutes earlier before any appointment and bring along something to do in those 15 minutes (or longer if the other person turns out to be late). Then you can stop playing catch up and stay ahead in life.

    Learn more tips about how to be more punctual here: How to Be On Time Every Time

    11. Being in Bad Relationships

    Are you always dating the wrong guys/girls? Do you end up with jerks all the time? Well, you may not be able to stop yourself from meeting bad partners but you can certainly stop yourself from furthering contact with them, spending time with them, or even… entering into a relationship with them.

    I used to invest myself in this guy who was nothing but toxic for me. After a good five months of experiencing nothing but getting burned over and over again, I realized that he was a total waste of my time and I deserved better. I decided to cut him off, and it was soon after that I met my soulmate.

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    Learn about why you shouldn’t stay in a bad relationship and how to deal with it if you’re in one: Why Trying Hard to Stay in an Unhappy Relationship Is Not Love, but Fear

    12. Leaving Things to the Last Minute

    Burning the midnight oil isn’t fun — it’s exhausting.

    Those of you who got through college by burning the midnight oil would have learned this the hard way. Not only is it damaging for your body, it is also mentally draining as you’re constantly in a hyper-tense mode, feeling anxious about whether you can finish your work on time.

    Start today on a new note. Rather than react to your deadlines, be proactive about them by planning ahead, identifying what needs to be done for the week, and getting things done in advance.

    By staying ahead of your tasks, you can also use your extra time to plan ahead in your life and get more things done.

    Take a look at this guide and learn how to stop procrastinating: Procrastination – A Step-By-Step Guide to Stop Procrastinating

    13. Focusing on the Negatives

    In every situation, there are two ways you can react: zoom down to the problem areas and crib about how things aren’t the way you want, or celebrate the areas that are going well and work on making everything better.

    Many of us see the importance of doing the latter but in practice, we do the former. Why though? Criticizing and focusing on the negatives is easy but it doesn’t empower nor inspire us to be better.

    Make a change — for every negative encounter you run into, I challenge you to identify three things that are good about it. Practice doing this for one week, and by the end of the week you’ll find that your first instinct is to think positive, not negative.

    And here’re even more ways to help you stay positive: 11 Tips for Maintaining your Positive Attitude

    The Bottom Line

    So here you find the 13 most common bad habits and their consequences on your mind and body. The good news’ you can quit them all.

    Just spot out your own bad habits and take my suggestions to quit them. Then you’ll find your life a lot healthier and happier!

    Need more tips to break your bad habits? Check out these articles:

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

    Reference

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