What is Anxiety and Do I Have It?

"I mean, yeah, I do have trouble falling asleep sometimes.  It's like at 2am I just wake up and I can't stop thinking about stuff... but it's not anxiety."
"I wouldn't say I have anxiety, but I do have some times when my breathing gets really fast and I sort of feel like the walls are closing in on me."
"A family history of anxiety?  Not that I know of.  My mom is constantly worried all the time and texts me at all hours to make sure I haven't been in some kind of accident or whatever."

I've heard all these and more in my years as a counselor for adults and kids.  Every statement above has one thing in common:

They all point to signs of clinical anxiety.

What is anxiety and do I have it

In general, Anxiety Disorders are incredibly misunderstood by the general public.  If you're a sufferer, you know how hard it can be to try explaining your feelings to someone who doesn't get it.  They give you that blank look and ask, "Can't you just stop thinking about it?"

Obviously, if you could stop worrying... wouldn't you just do it?

But no, anxiety goes much deeper than that...

Based on my clinical experience and the criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the book doctors and mental health professionals use to make diagnoses), there are 8 signs of anxiety that commonly go unnoticed.

8 Anxiety Symptoms You May Not Realize

  1. Muscle tension.  That nagging ache or tightness in your shoulders and neck indicate that your body is stressed out.  Other types of pain may include headache or teeth-clenching.
  2. Worry about lots of different things, even when they're really unlikely.  Will we be in a car crash?  Did I leave my door unlocked?  What if our landfills fill up?  Has my child gotten the right amount of vegetables today?  If you find it difficulty to stop the spinning wheel of "what ifs" in your mind, you may be suffering from anxiety.
  3. Sleep disturbance.  This often manifests as trouble falling asleep or difficulty with staying asleep.  Clients may report that they lie down in the dark but can't stop thinking, or that they awaken in the wee hours with all kinds of worries.
  4. Stressful dreams.  Like sleep disturbances, stressful dreams can be a sign that your body is asking for help with anxiety.  These may include terrifying nightmares, or may be as simple as dreaming that you're unprepared for a big meeting or that you're looking for something you need.  You might not even remember these dreams, so it can be helpful to ask a partner if you talk in your sleep frequently.
  5. Visits to the doctor.  This one gets missed all the time!  I read a statistic on WebMD that 75-90% of doctor visits are actually for stress-related symptoms that mask themselves as physical ailments.  One example was a person I knew who repeatedly asked her doctor for cancer screenings since she was convinced that bumps, bruises, skin discolorations, or coughing meant that she had cancer.  Another example might be unexplained pain that simply cannot be explained by physical ailment (see item #1).
  6. Intense moments of panic.  Periods of intense fear with shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling "crazy," feelings of choking or even thoughts that you might be having a heart attack are common for panic attacks.  What's more, suffers often believe that there is a physical/medical explanation for this rather than an emotional one.  
  7. Irritability.  If you snap at the smallest thing, anxiety could be to blame.  After all, if you're essentially waiting on imagined disaster to strike at any moment, you'd surely be irritated when some small debacle (like burned dinner or a child's tantrum) occurs.
  8. Stomach issues.  Feeling too nervous to eat, vomiting or having diarrhea before a stressful event, or even heartburn can be signs that your body is screaming for relief from the emotions of anxiety.  

It's worth noting that, in general, several of these these symptoms would be required and they'd last in some form for a period of 6 months or more to be considered clinically significant.  In other words, if you've simply had trouble sleeping once in the last few months, the symptom is probably irrelevant.

 

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Please note that this article is not meant as a substitution for health care advice or mental health treatment in any form. Always consult your health care provider if you think you may have an emotional or mental illness.