As someone who has severe gastrointestinal issues, when I experience severe anxiety, it first pops up in my digestive tract: I’ll encounter acid reflux, heartburn, and unexpected vomiting. It will feel like my body is fighting against me, but in many ways, it’s my stomach’s way of telling me to slow down and address my mental health. And although I loathe the feeling that follows, I am grateful for this warning sign.
It’s not the way anxiety is portrayed on television and in film — uncontrollable shaking, shortness of breath, fainting, etc. — and I know now that many people who struggle with their mental health can exhibit their internal mindset in varying, subtly external ways. Anxiety is a subjective experience: there is no one-size-fits-all depiction.
According to a 2013 study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million American adults struggle with some form of an anxiety disorder. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to look out for indications of anxiety, past just a racing heart or heightened anticipation, so that we can help both ourselves and those we care for call attention to mental health.
Here are some of the different ways that that anxiety can manifest itself — so the next you or a loved one is grappling with your mental health, you can address it head on.
When anxiety feels like an uncontrollable, heavy burden that weighs them down, some may turn to what they can control instead: their bodies. According to a 2016 study by the Anxiety And Depression Association of America, eating disorders commonly co-concur with anxiety disorders, and can make symptoms much worse.
This can manifest in many different ways, from an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, to an obsession with healthy food and exercise. They’re all are harmful ways of coping with and managing crippling anxiety. It is crucial that those struggling with both anxiety and an ED get treated for not just one, but both.
Severe anxiety can trigger a plethora of sleep problems, from insomnia or narcolepsy, to sleep walking or lucid dreaming. “One of the most common signs and symptoms of anxiety are what we call parasomnias — problems sleeping,” Dr. Gary Brown, licensed psychotherapist, tells Bustle. “When we feel anxious, it can be difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, and we can also have disturbed sleep in the form of nightmares and even night terrors. As upsetting as this can be, these are upsetting but perfectly normal responses to anxiety.”
3Excessive Substance Consumption
Binge drinking, or even popping prescription medication, can be telltale signs that someone is struggling with the larger issue of anxiety or depression.
“Feelings of anxiety can be so painful that we can be tempted to “numb the pain” by self-medicating with alcohol, prescription and non-prescription medications, and street drugs,” Dr. Brown says. “Whenever we self-medicate, we run the risk of creating an even bigger second problem of substance abuse on top of the anxiety that we feel.”
4Posting A Lot On Social Media
If someone starts to become hyperactive on social media platforms, it could be a sign that they are struggling with anxiety. According to a 2017 study published in Society for Consumer Psychology, many people with anxiety disorders have a paradoxical need to reach out to others, and a fear of ‘bothering’ another person. Social media gives them the outlet they desire without the threat of face-to-face confrontation.
5The Need To Control Things
Sometimes when people try to control their anxiety, it can manifest as a form of OCD. “One of the underlying feelings associated with anxiety is fear that there are things in our life that we can’t control,” Dr. Brown says. “The need to reassert control is why many people develop obsessive compulsive disorder as a way to reestablish and maintain control in our lives. OCD is often expressed in doing the same things, compulsively, and repetitively to the point of trying to make everything orderly and perfect.”
6Nervous Ticks Like Itching, Picking, Or Biting
Itching compulsively, picking at scabs, or biting nails are extremely common, physical ways of channeling one’s anxiety into a physical outlet. “Anxiety can be experienced in any number of ways, as it relates to severity,” Dr. Brown says. “It’s typically a result of the cumulative stressors that all of us can experience during certain phases of our lives. It can be the result of stressors at work, school, home, or other situations we encounter in our life.”
7Developing An Unexplained Phobia
Developing a phobia late in life that seems somewhat random or unexplained can be linked to an unspoken fear or underlying anxiety. “Some of the more common phobias include fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of being trapped in a confined space, fear of crowds, and numerous other phobias,” Dr. Brown says.
8Avoiding Social Situations
If you find yourself more isolated than usual, avoiding all forms of social interaction, and only engaging when with the people in your life when forced, this could be a sign of a larger anxiety disorder. “Many people who suffer from anxiety, are chronically afraid of social situations because they fear being judged, ridiculed, and rejected by others,” Dr. Brown says. “Social Anxiety Disorder is one of the more painful ways that anxiety can manifest.”
9Problems Digesting Food
According to a recent study by Harvard Health, the gastrointestinal tract is heavily tied to emotion, and anxiety, depression, anger, and more, can all trigger gut problems. This can range from temporary diarrhea or acid reflux, to chronic pain and illness, like IBS or Gastroparesis.
If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other form of mental illness, know that you are not alone. Just because your experience of anxiety doesn’t look like somebody else’s, it doesn’t make it by any means illegitimate. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, because your mental health is important and your feelings are valid.