Anxiety can mean nervousness, worry, or self-doubt. Sometimes, the cause of anxiety is easy to spot, while other times it may not be. Everyone feels some level of anxiety once in a while. But overwhelming, recurring, or “out of nowhere” dread can deeply impact people. When anxiety interferes like this, talking to a therapist can help.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
Diagnosing anxiety depends on a person’s feelings of worry, so symptoms will vary. Personality, co-occurring mental health conditions, and other factors may explain a person’s symptoms. Anxiety can cause intrusive or obsessive thoughts. A person with anxiety may feel confused or find it hard to concentrate. Feeling restless or frustrated can also be a sign of anxiety. Other people with anxiety may feel depressed. Symptoms of anxiety can also be physical. Anxiety can cause overly tense muscles, or high blood pressure. Trembling, sweating, a racing heartbeat, dizziness, and insomnia can also come from anxiety. Anxiety may even cause headaches, digestive problems, difficulty breathing, and nausea. If physical symptoms of anxiety are severe and sudden, it may be a panic attack.
WHAT DOES ANXIETY LOOK LIKE?
People can show signs of anxiety in many ways. Some may become more talkative, while others withdraw or self-isolate. Even people who seem outgoing, friendly, or fearless can have anxiety. Since anxiety has many symptoms, how it looks for one person is not how it appears for another.
People who have anxiety may be withdrawn, but this is not the case for everyone with anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety may trigger a “fight” rather than “flight” response, in which case a person might appear confrontational. Stumbling over words, trembling, and nervous tics are often associated with anxiety. While they can appear in people with anxiety, they are not always present, and some people who do not have anxiety also show these signs.
If you are unsure if someone you know may be experiencing anxiety, it may not be helpful to bring it up unless they do. However, there are some actions you can consider taking if you want to make a person who might be anxious more comfortable. You can:
- Be patient with them
- Share words of encouragement or appreciation
- Be predictable and be willing to share details with them if they ask
WHAT DOES GENERALIZED ANXIETY MEAN?
Generalized anxiety is also known as free-floating anxiety. It is identified by chronic feelings of doom and worry that have no direct cause. Many people feel anxious about certain things, like money, job interviews, or dating. But people with free-floating anxiety can feel anxious for no clear reason. Generalized anxiety can also mean feeling too much worry about a particular event.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) identifies generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as excessive worry that impacts a person on an almost daily basis. It must last 6 months or more and be difficult to control. It must also not be able to be better explained by any other health condition. A person diagnosed with GAD must also show at least three of the following symptoms:
- Frequent fatigue
- Difficulty focusing
- Sleep problems
- Muscle tension
Many factors can contribute to free-floating anxiety. Living in stressful or abusive environments may be a cause. Sometimes, anxiety becomes a habit. A person used to feeling anxious about an event might keep feeling anxious once it is over. Some psychologists contend that modern life causes free-floating anxiety. According to them, deadlines, fast-paced lifestyles, and keeping up with social media could cause chronic anxiety.
When a person cannot find where their anxiety comes from, therapy can help. Therapy often helps people learn coping skills for dealing with symptoms of anxiety. Skills that help people with chronic anxiety include deep breathing, meditation, exercise, and assertive communication.
WHAT CAUSES ANXIETY?
Anxiety, like the fight, flight, or freeze response, is for survival. It allows people to protect themselves to avoid harm. Sometimes, a person has high levels of anxiety regularly. They may feel helpless in dealing with their symptoms.
Both biology and environment determine if a person will have anxiety. In other words, anxious behaviour can be inherited, learned, or both. For example, research shows that anxious parents are likely to have anxious children. However, parents may also model anxious behaviour. If so, they might instil that same behaviour in their children. Having a stressful upbringing can also increase a person’s chances of having anxiety. This is because anxiety becomes a way to anticipate danger and stay safe.
Anxiety can also develop due to unresolved trauma. Unresolved trauma may leave a person in a heightened state of physiological arousal. When this is the case, certain experiences can reactivate the old trauma. This is common for people with posttraumatic stress (PTSD).
TYPES OF ANXIETY
Anxiety is at the root of many mental health conditions, including panic attacks and phobias. It is often directly related to other conditions, like obsessions and compulsions, PTSD, and depression. In addition to generalized anxiety, the DSM-5 lists the following mental health issues as anxiety disorders:
- Separation anxiety: Can be characterized by reluctance to leave home or be apart from parents and anxiety when separated from parents.
- Selective mutism: Selective mutism means not speaking at all in only some situations. This may cause issues with academic, work, or social success.
- Panic: Panic disorder is diagnosed by recurring panic attacks, including physical symptoms of anxiety.
- Specific phobias: Phobias are fear surrounding a certain object or situation, which the person avoids.
- Social anxiety: People with social anxiety feel fear or anxiety in social situations. The fear is often out of proportion to the threat, and people with social anxiety may avoid social situations.
- Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia can include fear of being in open or enclosed spaces, leaving one’s house, and being in crowds or using public transportation.
- Medication/substance-induced anxiety: This condition is diagnosed by anxiety that seems to be directly caused by exposure to certain substances, like caffeine or alcohol. The anxiety could also be caused by a medication.
ANXIETY IN CHILDREN
Children, like adults, can experience anxiety. However, children may show different symptoms than adults. Knowing how to identify anxiety in children can help parents or guardians address it early. Then, parents may decide to find a child therapist or psychologist to help their child learn how to manage it.
If a child feels anxious more often and more intensely than most children their age, they may have some type of anxiety. A child who has anxiety might have difficulty going to school. They may also avoid social events or extracurricular activities, like sports. Some kids with anxiety are behind for their age in areas like making friends or being independent. Anxiety in children may appear as crying, clinging to parents, or tantrums.
Kids with anxiety may show certain behaviours that mimic obsessions or compulsions. Continual picking or pulling at skin or hair can be an anxious behaviour. They may also show signs of separation anxiety. Signs of separation anxiety include clinging to parents, crying, or refusing to go to school or friend’s houses. Children can also experience generalized anxiety and may not be able to identify why they feel anxious. As children enter adolescence, they may be more likely to develop anxiety. Social anxiety often begins around age 13. Up to 25.1% of adolescents ages 13 to 18 may be affected by an anxiety condition.
Older children or teens may develop food-related anxiety, which can lead to disordered eating. If left unchecked, this can cause serious health complications. Studies show that up to 91% of female teens have tried to control their weight with food. Meanwhile, around 40% of female teens show signs of disordered eating. Some researchers say that eating issues in males are also increasing. While food-related anxiety can occur on its own, it often co-occurs with other anxiety-related conditions, such as obsessions and compulsions. Disordered eating may also develop in teenagers as a coping mechanism for handling anxiety, stress, or trauma.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
- American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Anxiety disorders and panic attacks. (n.d.). University of Michigan. Retrieved from https://www.uhs.umich.edu/anxietypanic#help
- Anxiety disorders. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
- Does my child have an anxiety disorder? (n.d.). AnxietyBC. Retrieved from https://www.anxietybc.com/parenting/childhood-anxiety
- Facts and statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
- Hudson, J. L., Dodd, H. F., & Bovopoulos, N. (2011). Temperament, family environment and anxiety in preschool children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39(7), 939-51. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10802-011-9502-x
- Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Teenage eating disorders. (n.d.). Walden Center for Education and Research. Retrieved from http://www.waldencenter.org/popular-searches/teen-eating-disorders
- Tyrer, P., & Baldwin, D. (2006). Generalised anxiety disorder. The Lancet, 368(9553), 2156-66. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/199069841?accountid=1229