"I'm so stressed out right now." We hear this often and we may say it, too. A critical meeting at work coming up, a dip in your bank account, or tension with your significant other can trigger feelings of nervousness. But sometimes this nervousness crosses over to anxiety, and sometimes anxiety crosses over to a full-blown disorder that disrupts your life.
Here are 5 things everyone needs to know about anxiety:
1. Your body knows you're anxious even if your brain doesn't.
Sometimes we're not aware we have anxiety at all. But even if your conscious mind doesn't recognize it, your body does. Some physical symptoms of anxiety include muscle tension and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you feel muscle aches and frequently find yourself balling your fists and clenching and unclenching your jaw, or your stomachaches and you suffer from constipation or diarrhea, these may be signs of anxiety. A psychotherapist who specializes in mind-body work can help you bring your brain and body in sync and uncover what's causing your anxiety.
2. Anxiety can be a cover for anger.
Anxiety is more acceptable in our culture than anger is: While people fear anger, they are sympathetic toward those with anxiety. So sometimes people substitute anxiety for anger. The anxiety acts as a defense against admitting you're upset. You may fear that expressing your anger toward a parent or partner could lead to abandonment, so you hold it in. You're jumpy, your thoughts race, you're always worried and in constant motion. To figure out if your anxiety is a cover for anger, the next time you feel anxious, sit by yourself in a quiet place and explore your feelings. Breathe and let your emotions rise and evolve. See if your worrying turns to anger. (I discuss this technique in depth in my book.)
3. Anxious around other people? It could be social anxiety.
At home, your anxiety subsides. But when you're around other people, or there's an event coming up where you'll have to interact with others or speak publicly, your anxiety goes into overdrive. If you spend the week before a party thinking about every little thing that may go wrong, or you avoid going, or you dwell on everything you said or did afterward, you may have social anxiety. Symptoms include stomach aches, muscle aches, a sped-up heart rate, and the feeling that everyone is watching and judging you. If you think you might have social anxiety, try meditating before you go out: Spend a few minutes breathing calmly and center yourself. Picture everything going perfectly. Whenever your mind drifts to worst-case scenarios, bring it back to an image of everything going well.
4. If your anxiousness never subsides, you may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Everyone feels anxious from time to time. It's a typical response to stressful events, and the unease goes away when the stressor does. But if you feel anxious all the time, in combination with symptoms like restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia, for six months or more, you may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If your anxiety gets in the way of you living your life and makes you suffer, you should seek out a therapist or psychiatrist.
5. Anxiety can turn into obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Are you always dwelling on questions without clear answers? Should I stay with him or leave him? Should I take this job offer or keep the one I have? The answers to such questions are rarely black and white. If you can't handle uncertainty, and your worrying seems to control you, you may not be just anxious; you may be obsessive. Obsessiveness becomes obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) when you turn to rituals to calm your mind. If you need to check the locks exactly five times before you leave the house and that checking makes you late for work, you may have OCD. Unwanted thoughts are another symptom: No matter how hard you try not to, your mind turns to distressing images. You can't stop picturing someone attacking you as you walk at night, so you spend a significant portion of your income on taxi or Uber rides, even when you don't have far to travel.
Nervousness can be normal and healthy, if unpleasant. But it can also turn into a much bigger problem. We can all expect some anxiety in our lives, but when anxiety takes over, it's time to talk to get help.