Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in Australia, affecting around one in eight Australians in 2017/18. However, it is also one of the most easily overlooked. Without a prior knowledge of exactly what anxiety entails, it can be difficult to differentiate between a normal reaction to the everyday stresses of life and a more serious issue. Personally, I struggled with this for years, not understanding that my constant feelings of worry and stress were not a natural part of life. Anxiety can also cause a range of physical symptoms that I didn’t connect to my emotions, which made getting diagnosis and treatment more difficult. So what are the symptoms of anxiety that we need to look out for?

Three types

Anxiety symptoms fall into three main categories: psychological, physical and behavioral. Psychological symptoms affect the way that we think, feel and process information, physical symptoms affect the ways that our body operates, and behavioral symptoms cause changes in the way that we act.
These can occur together in any combination, so one person may experience primarily psychological symptoms and not notice the physical so much, while others may find the physical symptoms very disturbing and not realize that these are linked to their emotional state until they seek help from a doctor. Personally, I’ve experienced all three types in different combinations over the years, depending on different life circumstances and different medications.

Psychological Symptoms

1. Excessive fear/worry

Possibly the most well-known symptom, excessive fear and worry sits at the core of all anxiety. It is perfectly normal to be fearful or worried in the right circumstances, for example if you are watching a horror movie, or you have an important presentation coming up. However, for a person with anxiety, this sense of worry or fear can become embedded in many of their daily experiences – to the point where this heightened sense of distress can feel completely overwhelming.

These feelings can also be set off by seemingly innocuous events that often wouldn’t make sense to other people. For example, I used to be really afraid of going to the hairdresser and would walk back and forth past the door several times before being able to make myself go in! What was I afraid of? Simply having to talk to the hairdresser and tell them what I wanted them to do. Not that scary in hindsight, but at the time the fear was very real.

2. Catastrophizing

When catastrophizing, a person will start to see their situation as worse than it really is. For me, this will often continue into thinking through all the ways in which I am trapped and cannot fix what has been set in motion, and ultimately feel hopeless about my future. For example, if I began by worrying that I hadn’t finished my university assessment on time, I might then think about how it will be impossible to finish it now, that I will fail my subject, that I will have to drop out of university, then I will never get a well-paying job and will have to live at home as a drain on my parents forever, unable to achieve any of my goals in life. When every problem seems to lead down the road to complete disaster, you can easily start to give up on the hope of anything ever going right.

3. Obsessive thinking

Most people in the world will have experienced some level of obsessive thinking at some point in our lives. For example, after a recent relationship breakup, it can be difficult to stop thinking about the other person and going through all of the “what-if’s” and alternative scenarios of what could have been. With anxiety, this level of obsession is heightened, and can be applied to many different subjects, sometimes all at the same time! For me, dealing with these thoughts will often cut into time when I’m trying to focus on other aspects of life (obsessing about fabricated relationship issues while at work, for example) and make it difficult to move on because they keep recurring.

Physical Symptoms

4. Racing heartbeat

When we become stressed, the body will naturally start an emergency threat response process known as “fight or flight” mode. This stress response will cause the heart to start beating rapidly in order to get the blood pumping quickly around the body, ready to react to the threat by physically fighting or running away. This response was very useful hundreds of years ago when humans were at risk of being attacked by a sabertoothed tiger, but these days when our stresses are usually closer to awkward social interactions or financial woes, being ready to run off or attack something doesn’t really address the issue!

5. Tight chest and/or trouble breathing

Similar to the racing heartbeat, a feeling of tightness in the chest or breathing issues are related to our emergency response. In this state, our body wants to get as much oxygen into the blood as possible, and so the breathing becomes more rapid than usual. Unfortunately, anxiety and breathlessness can turn into a difficult cycle to break, as anxiety will cause more breathlessness, and more breathlessness will cause more anxiety! Chest tightness is caused by the same mechanism – your mind feels like you are being constricted as it feels like you can’t get enough air in.

6. Hot/cold flushes

This won’t surprise you at this point, but hot and cold flushes can also be attributed to our fight or flight response. When our body is getting us ready for action, changes in our hormones can cause our blood to be drawn deeper inside the body, away from the surface, causing a cold feeling. At the same time, the increased respiration, perspiration and heart rate caused by the stress can also lead to feeling very hot. Sometimes these feelings will even alternate quickly from one extreme to the other, which can be very confusing!

7. Restlessness

When we experience these physical symptoms that stem from our emergency response, our bodies are expecting that we will need to spring into action at any moment. However, as mentioned previously, most of our modern worries aren’t solved by sprinting into the distance or taking someone on in hand-to-hand combat. With our bodies rearing to go but without a physical outlet, it can often leave us feeling very restless and eager to get up and move. We might shake our leg, continuously tap a table, play with our hair or click a pen – just to let out some of the energy that has been built up inside.

8. Tense muscles

Often as we begin to feel tense in the mind, we begin to store this tension physically in our bodies. Have you ever felt yourself clamping your jaw shut tightly when you were stressed, without even noticing it? This is just one of the many ways this can manifest, with common spots for storing tensions found around the neck, shoulders, hips, hands and feet. For myself and others with long term anxiety issues, this ongoing inability to relax can lead to further issues such as tension headaches or even chronic pain.

9. Panic Attacks

As the most obvious symptom of anxiety, panic attacks can be apparent even to those around you. These are instances of intense, overwhelming anxiety, resulting in an extreme version of some of the symptoms listed above, often all at once. Commonly people will have a sudden rush of intense fear/panic, accompanied by rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath. When experiencing a panic attack, it becomes impossible to focus on anything else, and can feel like you are fighting for your life.

Behavioral Symptoms

10. Avoiding situations that cause anxiety

When a person begins experiencing the psychological and physical symptoms listed above, it makes a lot of sense that they might start to avoid putting themselves in situations that could trigger them. However, this becomes an issue when more and more situations are avoided and it limits the person’s ability to live a normal life. For example, I might experience anxiety around a particular person at work after an awkward interaction, so I start to avoid going near them at work. Eventually, the anxiety about being put in a situation where I would have to talk to them might make me too anxious to go to work at all.

With all of these in mind, the key thing to remember is that anxiety symptoms matter whenever they start to prevent you from living your life to the fullest. Feeling out of breath every now and then may mean that you need to up your cardio fitness, but if it’s happening frequently with no obvious cause, anxiety may be the culprit. Similarly, worrying is a common part of every human’s life, but when it starts to prevent you from doing the things you need to do in life, it may be time to seek some help. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor!

This piece was written by one of the ICLA eFriend Peer Support Workers. eFriend is an online platform where you can connect with a trained peer support worker whom has their own lived experience of feeling lonely, isolated, stressed or worried. You can speak to your eFriend Peer via video or phone call. Your eFriend Peer will listen, validate and provide hope. If you like, they can also assist you to identify any other services you may like to try or help you create plans to improve your personal well-being. Or they can simply listen.

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