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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

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

More by this author

Chris Skoyles

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

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Published on February 26, 2021

3 Common Causes Of Stress That Are Depleting Your Energy

3 Common Causes Of Stress That Are Depleting Your Energy

Are you feeling amplified anxiety, sadness, or anger lately? An astounding 84% of adults have felt at least one of these stress-related emotions in the two weeks prior to being surveyed, according to this recent Stress in America report.[1] Although it’s often comforting to know you’re not alone, the pervasiveness of this particular shared experience is disconcerting. But first, what causes stress?

What Causes Stress?

Lurking beneath the surface of this collective situation are some deeper factors: feelings of powerlessness and a diminished sense of certainty.

Due to a variety of events over the past year, control over numerous elements of our lives has been stripped away, leaving us feeling frustrated, afraid, and unsure about the future. It’s as if someone took the puzzle of our lives, broke apart every segment we had painstakingly pieced together, then shook them up and dumped them into a scrambled mess on the floor. On top of that, we’re trying to put it all back together while slogging through in survival mode, every day, on repeat—it’s enough to make even the Energizer Bunny feel depleted.

From this place of disempowered overwhelm, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like there is little we can do to regain our footing and overcome the stress. However, that is the furthest thing from the truth.

Let’s look on the bright side: We can all improve our energy and relieve stress simply by shifting a few essential habits.

When everything feels out of control, here are 3 often-overlooked areas where you can be in control and obliterate the common causes of stress that are depleting your energy. Each is proven to directly compound stress and deplete energy when neglected but enhance energy and stress relief when managed proactively.

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1. Sleep Quality Secrets to Snub the Stubborn Stress-Fatigue Cycle

You may be well aware of how stress disrupts or prevents a good night’s rest. Frustrations over the day’s events or anxiety about what’s coming tomorrow are common blocks to getting enough zzzz’s. But did you know that the reverse is also true?

Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. One such study found that subjects who were limited to 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. They also cited a dramatic improvement in mood upon return to normal sleep. [2]

In addition to these directly mood-related symptoms, lack of sleep can cause muddled focus, fatigue, and impairment of information processing which often result in secondary causes of stress. We feel like the walls are falling around us as we run behind schedule, struggle to collect scrambled thoughts, suffer the consequences of knee-jerk reactions, and fight the inevitable downsides of exhaustion, including clouded judgment, inhibited self-control, and difficulty in making decisions or completing tasks.

Unfortunately, our favorite fixes are actually counterproductive. Two of the most common substances used in direct response to not getting enough sleep—alcohol to relax us enough to fall asleep and caffeine to perk us up after inadequate sleep—only worsen our ability to secure consistent and restful slumber, creating a vicious cycle. Relying on these “band-aid fixes” only amplifies and prolongs our feelings of stress.[3][4]

Ultimately, sleep deprivation secretly undermines our ability to make smart choices when it comes to regaining control over the other causes of stress which are depleting our energy.

Here are two simple tips to help you sleep better tonight:

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  • Turn off all screens at least one hour before hitting the hay to send the signal to your brain that it’s bedtime and ease your mind into sleepy relaxation.
  • Be intentional with your soothing bedtime rituals. Instead of mindlessly passing the time in the hours before you turn in, focus on an activity that feels soothing and nurturing like a foot massage or a few gentle yoga poses.

2. Focus on Comfort Food for Extra Energy and Simple Stress Relief

The word “malnutrition” is commonly associated with poverty-related food shortages. However, in the medical world, the prefix “mal-” is also defined as “defective.” By broadening our understanding of this term, we can see that nutrient deficiencies can happen for people of any socioeconomic status—and they do.

The hustle culture endorsed by the industrialized world has created an abundance of quick and convenient food (and, let’s be honest, “fake food”) options that are minimally nourishing. The USDA’s most recent Dietary Guidelines reports that about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, yet inadequate intake of nutrients that are proven to both relieve stress and increase energy (e.g., B vitamins and magnesium) remains common.[5][6] The data clearly shows that, for the majority of adults in the USA, the quality of our food is disproportionate to the quantity.

This reality has been compounded by pandemic-related stress eating, which is so prevalent that participants of a study published in September 2020 averaged a staggering 7 lbs weight gain in only 4 months.[7] This snapshot demonstrates that the foods we tend to crave, either for comfort or convenience, are usually high in sugars, saturated fats, and simple carbohydrates—all of which actually amplifies the stress response in the body.[8]

There is a funny-not-funny irony in the fact that the acronym for the U.S. eating style is SAD (Standard American Diet). We readily sacrifice nutrient needs for the sake of saving our time and money, which are poured right back into the culture that requires us to be so busy. We are drawn to unhealthy comfort foods like moths to a flame in an attempt to soothe ourselves—yet these exact foods only lead to feeling even more stressed and depleted.

So, what can we do?

Making smart food choices in itself is inherently stressful for many people. The internal battle can be just as impactful in causing stress and depleting your energy as the food choices themselves. If you can relate, don’t worry. It’s not necessary to focus on calorie counting or weight loss here.

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Instead, take comfort in a couple of easily doable steps toward shifting your dietary habits:

  • Be mindful of your intake of highly processed foods, and enjoy the benefits of simply adding a few stress-relieving, energizing foods and beverages to your daily repertoire.
  • Water, green tea, Brazil nuts, sweet potatoes, fresh baby spinach, brown rice, avocados, oatmeal, bananas, salmon, lean beef, and blueberries are all great choices to get you started.

3. A Surprising Battle for Your Attention, and How to Win the War

The pressure to be “always-on” has long been a major cause of stress for highly driven people. We live in an internet-centric world that has only been compounded by the circumstances of the pandemic. Working from home has blurred the lines between personal and professional boundaries, and many are suffering the consequences.

The combination of issues culminating from the past year has also kept people glued to the media and their newsfeeds. If you ever feel angry, anxious, sad, hopeless, or exhausted after watching the news or scrolling social media, this could be one of the main causes of stress that is depleting your energy. In fact, a study showed elevated levels of stress hormone (cortisol) and increased negative response to subsequent stressors after watching negative news.[9]

Research even shows that smartphones and social media apps manipulate the dopamine-driven reward system in our brains to create a habit that mimics gambling addiction.[10] Even when these tools don’t cost money, they have the capacity to deplete something much more valuable—our time, energy, and peace of mind.

This volatile mix may be generating a baseline cause of stress that has led directly to some of the other causes of stress mentioned in this article, including lack of sleep, alcohol or caffeine use, and unsupportive food choices/mindless eating.

Now, more than ever, we need to resist the urge to bombard our brains with fear-based information and distraction-inducing habits.

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Forward-focused actions to take now:

  • Create firm boundaries around your “check-in” time for reading and responding to emails or social media, both personal and professional.
  • Disable notifications on your devices to eliminate distractions.
  • Eliminate or minimize news exposure and only consume news from deliberately selected sources.
  • Stay focused on your top priorities and make sure your actions are aligned. Put this note on your screensaver/wallpaper as a reminder: “Is my behavior getting me what I want?”

Putting the Pieces Back Together

By flipping our perspective, we can see these lifestyle choices as the active causes of stress that they are, instead of stress aftereffects that are outside of our control. Circumstance might have made a mess of our puzzles, but we each have the power to pick up the pieces.

With a few simple shifts and a dedication to change, we can stop approaching them from a passive or reactive stance and take intentional action to improve our daily life. Just pause, look at the big picture, and reclaim control—then, watch as the puzzle pieces of your life click back into place with more energized ease and calm.

Tips on How to Handle Stress

Featured photo credit: engin akyurt via unsplash.com

Reference

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