Your heart is racing, your hands are shaky, and your palms are sweating. Your pupils dilate, and you feel panic rising in your chest. You start to feel nausea growing in the pit of your stomach, and you feel slightly dizzy and off balance.
Maybe you’ve had this experience when you were about to give a speech, run a race, or play a sport. This is an example of what happens when our bodies go through the fight-or-flight response that characterizes anxiety. It’s our body’s response to any perceived threat: our adrenaline kicks in to give us that extra boost of energy to push through.
However, when you struggle with clinical anxiety, that fight-or-flight response never truly turns off. You’re responding to all of life’s daily worries with an adrenaline surge, and your body and mind get worn out as a result.
Occasional anxiety can be helpful, because it keeps us motivated. But when it becomes problematic and interferes with our lives, it becomes more harmful than good.
You may be asking: what is the difference between just feeling worried or anxious occasionally, and actually struggling with an anxiety disorder? Here’s some common signs of clinical anxiety:
You notice physical symptoms, like feeling restless and worked up all the time, or your muscles feel tense and tight.
Physical symptoms of anxiety can often be one of the early indicators that you may struggle with this particular disorder. Have you ever noticed you’re feeling nervous by holding up a hand and watching it shake? Pay attention to how your body feels: if you notice shaking, trembling, twitching, exaggerated startle response, or feeling shaky, these might be indicators that you’re feeling some anxiety. It can also show up in common stress responses, like headaches or stomach issues.
I’ve recently noticed anxiety shows up in me in the form of an internal shakiness: when I’m feeling fear or anxiety about an upcoming event, I shiver as though I were outside in the cold, even if I’m in a warm room. While I may not be feeling the emotion of fear or anxiety, I am aware that I am anxious because of my body’s response.
Your negative thoughts and fears feel like they’re on a constant loop that you can’t turn off, and you feel worried about most areas of your life.
It is common to experience anxiety about a particular area of your life from time to time. Clinical anxiety, however, is characterized by worrying so much about all different areas of your life such that you can’t shut the worry off, even when you may need to for an important reason. This anxiety is excessive, interfering with daily life and the tasks at hand. It is a general rule that the more areas over which you are feeling anxious, the more likely it is that you are struggling with an anxiety disorder.
The worst-case scenario is the first option that pops into your mind.
Everyday worries can usually be explained or rationalized away, and they typically don’t jump to the worse possible option. On the other hand, clinical anxiety cannot be rationalized: even when you know your fears are unfounded, the experience of the emotion of anxiety won’t stop. Even if your fears aren’t realistic or logical, they can feel overwhelming. This is often one of the most frustrating parts of experiencing an anxiety disorder!
You’re at a loss to figure out what made you anxious in the first place.
“I know I’m nervous because I have a big test tomorrow.” Understandable, right? Feeling anxious about a definable problem like a big exam can be expected. But when the exam is over and the worry doesn’t stop, or you wake up one morning and feel on edge without any particular reason, that might be an indicator of a more severe form of anxiety.
You have hard time focusing, or you forget what you were doing right after you begin.
Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to focus on a task, and immediately thinking of five other things you need to do? The constant stream of anxious thoughts running through your head can be too much for your brain to hold. Trying to keep track of multiple different threads of worries at once can distract you from the task at hand, which leads to forgetfulness and difficulty maintaining attention. This can have an impact on your ability to be productive, which then feeds right back into anxiety you feel about being unproductive.
You’re short-tempered and easily irritated.
Having so many things on your mind can detract from your empathy and understanding of others. You can feel overstimulated and overwhelmed by the stress response you’re experiencing. For that reason, you may notice yourself becoming more annoyed or frustrated with people or circumstances around you that increase your worry.
Some symptoms of anxiety can mask themselves as depression: feeling tired all the time, lack of energy, and/or insomnia due to racing thoughts or fitful sleep.
You might think, “I worry a lot, but I don’t always get keyed up. Mostly I shut down, and feel sad, exhausted, and unmotivated.” Anxiety and depression play off of one another, so much so that what feels like depression might actually be anxiety. They are two sides of the same coin: you may be depressed and your body needs to create anxiety in order to get you energized to complete the task at hand, or you may have anxiety followed by depression when your body decides it is too much and slows you down.
With anxiety, the constant stream of worry and anxious thoughts that you’re experiencing wears your body down. As a result of your body functioning mostly on the adrenaline produced by the fight-or-flight response, you are more easily tired out.
This article was originally posted on April 6, 2017.
If some of the above characteristics feel true to you, it may be time to seek out a mental health professional to see if you’re experiencing clinical anxiety. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor- and Novi-based therapy office where I work with you to identify if what you’re struggling with is understandable worry or a more clinical issue. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to contact me and hear how I can help.