Anxiety is a natural human response to uncomfortable thoughts or situations, and it can even be helpful in certain ways. It aids us in assessing danger; it keeps us engaged and on our toes when we need to learn about our environment or perform in front of others; it motivates us to make plans to take care of ourselves and act in our best interests.
But when anxiety becomes excessive, it detracts from our life. It impairs our ability to think clearly and evaluate risk in a realistic manner, instead making us unduly frightened or uneasy. It makes our body feel uncomfortable, which can affect our mood. It can make us irritable or negative and, in turn, get in the way of our relationships.
For most people, anxiety comes and goes, and our body's stress response adjusts accordingly, recalibrating itself when it needs to, in order to get back to a functional way of interacting with the world. For some people, though, anxiety either repeatedly spikes too high or is chronically elevated beyond a normal level. Such folks may have any number of anxiety disorders or, even if not officially diagnosable, could still use some help. Do you recognize yourself in any of these signs?
1. Chronic worrying about unlikely events, even after reassurance — Anxiety that is functional and rational is generally able to incorporate a realistic sense of risk, and can be adjusted with the right information-gathering. Anxiety that keeps spiraling out of control, however, often feels resistant to reassurance. Like a person who fears they have a disease even though tests have repeatedly ruled it out, or a person who is so certain their partner will leave them that they actually begin to drive their partner away by constantly needing to be reassured of their commitment, anxiety at this level is no longer functional: It is making things worse.
2. Bodily symptoms that get in your way — Anxiety often comes with physical symptoms, but in manageable cases, those symptoms pass or are able to be coped with, without much issue. In excessive cases of anxiety, however, the symptoms become problems in and of themselves, and only seem to get worse the more they are noticed, creating a vicious cycle. Upset stomach, headache, heart palpitations, numbness and tingling, dizziness, and shortness of breath are among the most common manifestations of anxiety, and when they become excessive, they can significantly interfere with daily life.
3. Difficulty concentrating or absent-mindedness — Many different factors can contribute to changes in your ability to concentrate, from ADD/ADHD to depression or sleep deficits. But anxiety can most definitely do this as well. In these cases, a person's thoughts are moving so quickly that they have difficulty "landing" anywhere — and when they try to focus on just one thing, the mental clutter of their worries gets in the way, forcing them to attend to it and making it difficult to focus on what they were supposed to.
4. Sleep issues — For some people struggling with anxiety, the link with sleep problems is obvious: They lay in bed actively worrying about things, unable to fall asleep. For other people, the differences are more subtle, like waking up too early and being unable to fall back asleep, having an increased incidence of disturbing nightmares, or having more restless sleep in general. Unfortunately, this can often become a vicious cycle, not just because when we become overtired it is more challenging to actually get restful sleep, but also because our moods turn more negative and hypervigilant to — increasing our anxiety — when we haven't had enough shut-eye.
5. Increased negativity and irritability — People with increasing anxiety sometimes notice that they are just mad at the world, lacking the ability to go with the flow and be patient in the ways that used to come more easily for them. They may find things grating that never bothered them before, whether noises, cluttered spaces, or frustrating social situations. Anxious people may begin to turn this negativity inward as well, doubting their ability to overcome obstacles and assessing themselves in more negative ways than they ever did before. This is one symptom that can overlap with depression, especially when accompanied with the mindset that things won't get better.
6. Increased problems at work or school — When someone isn't feeling their best mentally, it can be hard to summon the motivation to perform as well as they did before. Their hopelessness and lack of motivation (along with their difficulty concentrating) can make even their honest efforts fall short. A star student who suddenly stops turning in assignments, a conscientious worker who now barely speaks up at meetings, or a business owner who doesn't seem to care anymore — these signs are most typically associated with depression, but they also can be classic signs of anxiety (or burnout) as well.
7. Increased conflicts in relationships — It may come as a surprise that sometimes one of the earliest signs of increased stress and anxiety is that someone seems to get more difficult to be around — friends and loved ones may even personalize it and think that they have done something wrong. The anxious person, due to their discomfort, can become more curt, pessimistic, and be hesitant to do the social things they wanted to before. They may seem more on edge, which makes them less patient and tolerant — and can cause increasing problems in relationships.
8. Having a troubling sense of feeling "out of control" — Sometimes, it can be hard for people suffering from anxiety to put into words what they are going through. They may feel like they are "drowning" in stress or that they are "spinning out of control" in their lives. For some, they may somaticize this, becoming certain that something is physically wrong with their bodies. For others, they just feel like they are so keyed up that they can't ever be at rest. Either way, it can be uncomfortable enough that it deserves some help.
A future post will address the best steps to take when seeking help for anxiety. In the meantime, what have you experienced that lets you know when your anxiety is at its worse? Let me know in the comments.
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