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.
Table of Contents
- Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder
- Different types of anxiety disorders
- What can I do if I (Or someone I care about) Have an anxiety disorder?
- Anxiety doesn’t have to control your life
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?
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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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