Everyone feels anxious once in a while, because let’s be real: between family obligations, workplace drama, and all the other things you’re juggling, life is stressful. And in some ways, that stress can be a positive thing. “If we didn’t have anxiety, we probably wouldn’t prepare for a meeting or a test, or we wouldn’t care what people think,” says E. Blake Zakarin, PhD, assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center.
All that said, day-to-day anxiety can cross a line and become the type that’s so frequent and intense that it consumes your life. “When it stops being helpful, and starts being impairing,” that’s when it’s time to seek help and be evaluated for an anxiety disorder, Zakarin says.
Anxiety disorder symptoms aren’t always easy to spot, and they vary widely from person to person. Some people have panic attacks and others experience phobias, for instance. What’s more, there are multiple types of anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder, and there’s no set anxiety disorder test to take. Still, there are warning signs to watch out for. Here, we down what to look for to determine whether you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of having an anxiety disorder.
Signs you may have an anxiety disorder
1. You have a major case of avoidance.
If you start making excuses for not participating in activities like parties or after-work happy hours or even networking events that’ll advance your career, it’s time to take a step back and determine why. “Avoidance is something we brush off and rationalize, like saying you don’t want to go meet new people because you’re tired,” Zakarin says. It often starts small—like hanging with close friends but skipping out when they invite others—and then you realize you’re saying no more and more often.
Procrastination, though typically pretty common, can also reveal anxiety. If you’re not turning in work because you fear your boss or co-workers will hate it or criticize you, that’s when putting off a project becomes a little more serious than missing a deadline by a day. “If it becomes a chronic problem, because it’s too distressing to face actually doing the project, that’s a good signal of anxiety,” says Zakarin.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States.
2. You consistently ask for a second opinion.
This might seem easier to spot in a loved one with anxiety, but pay attention to it for yourself, too. “Probably the most common observation from people close to individuals trying to manage intense anxiety is that they appear aroused, ‘hyped up, continually doubt themselves, and seek reassurance,” says Christine Maguth Nezu, PhD, professor of psychology at Drexel University. “In making a decision, someone might ask friends or co-workers if they are making the right decision, or they’ll continually search the internet, never satisfied that they have enough information, and worrying they may make the ‘wrong’ decision.”
3. You’re having trouble sleeping.
Restless nights come and go as quickly as bad days, but if you find yourself lying in bed with eyes wide open more often than not, it could mean you need some anxiety assistance. “We all have a night or two when we can’t sleep, but if it’s more chronic or really impacting your daytime wakefulness,” then it could be anxiety, Zakarin says. “If it’s taking you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night, on an ongoing basis, or you’re waking up and having trouble going back to bed, those are signals that anxiety is affecting your sleep.”
4. You’re experiencing GI issues.
Lots of bodily reactions occur when that fight-or-flight response kicks into gear in your sympathetic nervous system. First, the part of the brain that looks out for danger (the amygdala) sends a signal to your hypothalamus that you’re in danger, which then communicates to the rest of the brain (and body) that you have to act in survival mode. So, as you get the burst of energy to fight or flee, your “rest and digest” system—involved in actual digestion—turns off, and adrenaline and cortisol pumps throughout the body. This is likely why you’ll feel some distress in your digestive system if you’re constantly anxious, Zakarin says.
5. You have consistent muscle aches or headaches.
Similar to GI issues, you could feel physical aches in your muscles or your head if you’re constantly stressed and tense about what’s to come, Zakarin warns. “These aren’t always due to anxiety, but like poor sleep, they’re symptoms we tend to overlook like they’re not a big deal,” she says. Poor sleep could also be a contributing factor to the aches, along with general tightness throughout the body from chronically carrying around stress.
6. Your heart is racing or you’re breathing heavy.
Another consequence of the fight-or-flight physical reaction: Blood flows to areas that need it more—specifically, your heart, which then works in over time, pumping harder and faster, Zakarin explains. You’ll also try to take in more oxygen, which leaves you breathing heavy. It’s like you’re exercising, even if you’re hardly moving.
“The bodily changes that occur are built in for our survival. Therefore, most of the symptoms are normal…and predictable, like a rapid heartbeat, breathlessness, smothering sensations, increased blood pressure, feeling sick, hot, dizzy, faint or sweating,” Nezu says. “The irony here is that people rarely brush off intense symptoms of anxiety as ‘normal.’ They tend to worry even more, making an interpretation that their rapid breathing is due to a heart attack, or feeling faint may mean they have a brain tumor. You can imagine how this triggers more fear of harm, creating a vicious cycle.”
7. You’re really tired for no reason
Yes, you might be skimping on sleep if you’re up all night worrying about what’s to come. But even if you do catch quality shut-eye, the fact that your body is consistently working—physically fighting to survive, even if it’s not really threatened—can make you feel pretty fatigued, Zakarin says. So, if you’re tired for no reason, take a look at how you feel during the day and whether tension is really what’s weighing you down.
What to do if you think you have an anxiety disorder
If you can easily check off the seven signs of anxiety above, then it might be time to take a tough look at your lifestyle. Zakarin says sleep, exercise, and healthy eating could all help ease tension, as well as social support too and sharing your frustrations and worries. If making simple changes in your day-to-day doesn’t offer any improvements in how you feel, mentally and physically, then it could be time to see a professional. The most common treatment for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, which points out that our thoughts and behaviors impact how we feel and what we do, and vice versa, she explains. You’ll work to notice and manage unhelpful thoughts and reduce avoidance.
“The good news is that using specific psychological and emotional management tools on a regular basis can actually weaken these strong connections over time and can train the brain toward more resiliency,” says Nezu. Besides cognitive behavior therapy, calming techniques could also include relaxation training, mindful meditation, emotion-focused problem-solving therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and metacognitive therapy.