Anxiety symptoms can be easy to miss

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  • Here, experts explain what it can feel like to experience an anxiety disorder, plus what to do if you think you might have one.

    Fact: anxiety levels globally are at a record high. According to Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. newspaper bargain published last year, since 2008 the number of people struggling with anxiety symptoms has tripled among young adults in the UK, affecting 30% of women aged 18 to 24.

    The pandemic saw a further increase, with global rates of anxiety and depression increasing by a whopping 25% by 2020, according to the World Health Organization. While wI may be out of lockdown now, thanks to the ongoing climate crisis, the rising cost of living and global conflict, there’s certainly no shortage of things to worry about today.

    Experiencing a certain degree of anxiety is of course a part of life. So it can be difficult to distinguish between anxiety and stress, or know when anxiety is a disorder. Read on to find out the symptoms to look out for and what to do if you feel like you need some support.

    What is the meaning of anxiety?

    First things first: a definition for you. According to the NHS website, anxiety is a stress response, involving thoughts, physical symptoms, feelings and behaviours. On a biological level, it’s what happens when something triggers our “sympathetic nervous system,” better known as our “fight or flight” response. This system prepares the body for either fight or flight, by doing things like increasing our heart rate (to get more oxygen and energy), dilating our pupils (to let in more light and increasing visual alertness), or making us pale or flushing (the result of blood flow being shifted to our muscles and away from non-essential parts of the body).

    This system works great when we need, for example, to escape from a bear. But in today’s world, most perceived dangers don’t pose a physical threat to our safety, like when we have to give a big presentation at work. Despite this, our sympathetic nervous system will kick in, and we may face our colleagues with sticky hands, a racing heart and a slightly red face.

    “Anxiety is a response to the meaning of a situation, rather than the situation itself,” says Mike Wardpsychotherapist and founder of the anxiety clinic. “It can be temporary and temporary, it’s how the body reacts to risk or threat.”

    So the reason we might feel anxious during a presentation is because we’ve ascribed a certain meaning to it – perhaps telling ourselves that our job or reputation is at stake, or that our colleagues will think we look stupid, to example. But whatever symptoms we have at the moment, and whatever the outcome of the presentation, our anxiety will usually subside afterwards.

    But when the anxiety doesn’t just come and go, we should take notice. “When anxiety is every day, when worry becomes ruminating—or someone’s sleep, appetite, or daily activity is disrupted—that’s when it can cross into the criteria for an anxiety disorder,” says Ward. “It’s about persistent anxiety, or when someone is so preoccupied with worry that they can’t concentrate or switch tasks.”

    Keep reading to find out the main anxiety symptoms to look out for and what they might feel like.

    23 anxiety symptoms to know

    Did you know? Anxiety can present a mix of physical, psychological, emotional and behavioral symptoms, all of which can feed into each other and create a vicious cycle. “It’s a symphony,” says Ward. “And it can be hard to tell which symptom comes first.”

    Here are some of the most common anxiety symptoms:

    Physical anxiety symptoms:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Butterflies in the stomach
    • Increased heart rate or palpitations
    • Hot flashes or flushing
    • Increased sweat or sweaty palms
    • Nausea
    • Want to go to the toilet more often
    • Dizziness
    • Appetite changes
    • Hard to sleep

    Psychological anxiety symptoms:

    • Musing
    • Negative bias (perceiving negative things more easily)
    • Catastrophizing (jumps to the worst case scenario)
    • Intrusive thoughts

    Symptoms of emotional distress:

    Symptoms of behavioral anxiety:

    • Not being able to relax
    • Difficult to concentrate
    • Avoid situations that trigger your anxiety
    • Constantly seeking reassurance from others
    • Missing work or events because you can’t take it

    What do anxiety symptoms feel like?

    It is important to know that each person may experience anxiety symptoms in different ways. Here, Gemma Lupton, 31, from South Yorkshire, Sheffield, explains how she experiences them.

    “Physically, my heart starts racing and it feels like it’s almost pounding out of my chest. I’ll shake and sweat, my muscles will tense up and my head will start to ache. It also sets off my IBS symptoms, which include cramps and needing to use the toilet more I feel hot and clammy, which can make me blush bright red, which embarrasses me I feel weak – like I might collapse, and I can often get “tingles” in my fingers too.

    Gemma has suffered from anxiety for as long as she can remember, but was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder when she was at university. She continues, “Psychologically, my mind will race. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the thoughts, which makes them harder to deal with. Other times, they’ll be thoughts that tell me I’m a failure or not worthy. Sometimes I act out an unpleasant memory or scenario in my head.”

    “It feels like things around me have gotten faster, but I’m getting slower. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin and I feel exposed – like everyone knows I’m anxious and judging me. I will sometimes lash out at others unintentionally due to feeling trapped like I can’t escape. I will often go through all possible scenarios to prepare for a situation in my head. It’s like I want to try to be in control of as much as possible to avoid those horrible feelings of insecurity.”

    What should you do if you struggle with anxiety symptoms?

    If all of this sounds familiar, know that it doesn’t have to be this way. The first step to getting help and potential treatment is to talk to your GP. After discussing your symptoms and what may be causing them, they may prescribe medication (the NHS website have more information about the types of medication they can offer), suggest a talk therapy course or refer you to a specialist.

    You can also consider starting therapy privately (check out our guide on how to find a therapist, here). This can sometimes be the most immediate way to get help, as you can end up on a waiting list for therapy for months.

    Private therapy can be expensive – costing around £45 per session on average, and often more. However, there are cheaper options. For example, Anxiety UK has a pool of 400 therapists providing access to private therapy at a more affordable price. The Free Psychotherapy Network also has information about places that offer free or low-cost psychotherapy for people with low incomes and benefits.

    Whatever you do, if you’re struggling, try not to minimize what you’re going through. “At Anxiety UK we find it It can take a number of years before people seek help, they say Dave SmithsonOperations Director at Anxiety UK. “They have often lived with anxiety for quite some time and have told themselves that they worry about nothing. It often takes a while for that penny to drop.”

    Just because anxiety is a “normal” feeling doesn’t mean it’s okay for it to take over your life. So whether it’s through your GP, friends and family or a charity like Anxiety UK, make sure you get the support you deserve.

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