What Does Anxiety Feel Like And What Makes It Turn Into An Anxiety Disorder?

What is anxiety? 

Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease, usually about a stressful situation, an uncertain outcome, or an imminent event that can make it difficult to go about your day. Anxiety is your body's normal reaction to danger. It's a fight-or-flight response in response to a perceived threat. It can also occur when you're facing some type of challenging situation, like an exam, a first date, or a job interview.

Below are some of the features of anxiety:

  • It can make you feel scared or worried.

  • It can cause physical symptoms, like sweating or a rapid heartbeat.

  • It's a normal response to stressful or scary situations.

When does the feeling of anxiety turn into an anxiety disorder?

Having anxiety isn't always a bad thing, in moderation. It can help you stay focused and alert, motivate you to solve issues and spur you into action. But when your worries and fears become overwhelming, constant, and interfere with your daily life and relationships, you've likely entered into the anxiety disorder territory.

Everyone experiences feelings of worry, anxiety, and fear from time to time. Your body has a normal flight-or-fight response to stressful circumstances and situations. For instance, you may worry about paying a bill on time or about a job interview coming up. This natural anxiety can make you aware of risks and help protect yourself in a dangerous or difficult situation.

Your brain releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to respond to a threat or danger. Even if the danger isn't real, these hormones produce physical anxiety symptoms. After the dangerous or threatening situation ceases, your body typically returns to normal.

While anxiety is a normal human response, if you find you're feeling anxious all or most of the time, you could have an anxiety disorder. These feelings of anger and fear can interrupt your day-to-day routine long after the threat goes away. They often make you feel like things are worse than what they really are.

Support and treatment are available for anxiety disorders and you can successfully recover. The type of treatment your doctor provides will depend on the symptoms you're experiencing and their severity.

Physical signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder

Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

Certain types of anxiety may produce additional physical symptoms like panic attacks.  If you're experiencing a panic attack, you may:

  • Feel like you're choking or have difficulty breathing

  • Fear you're about to die

  • Feel dizzy, lightheaded, or that you’re about to pass out

  • Have chest pain

  • Have chills or feel overheated

  • Have tingling or numbness in parts of your body

Psychological signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder

Anxiety comes with a range of psychological symptoms. Excessive worrying is the most common symptom of an anxiety disorder. Individuals with anxiety disorders often worry disproportionately about everyday situations or events.

Doctors can diagnose you with generalized anxiety disorder if your worrying occurs most days for a minimum of six months¹ and is hard for you to control. To qualify for a diagnosis, the worrying must be intrusive and severe, making it hard for you to concentrate and accomplish your day-to-day tasks.

Psychological symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Racing thoughts

  • Changes in appetite

  • Feelings of panic, dread, or "impending doom"

  • Problems with sleep

  • Feeling irritable

  • Wanting to get away from the situation or circumstance you're in

  • Heightened alertness

  • Dissociation (you may feel as if you're not connected to your body, as though you’re watching things occur around you without feeling them)

  • Uncontrollable over-thinking

Types of anxiety disorders

There are a number of different types of anxiety disorder, including:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

If you have GAD, you might feel unrealistic and extreme tension and worry, even if there isn't an identifiable trigger. You might worry a lot most days about a variety of things, including school, work, relationships, and health. GAD impacts approximately 3.1% (6.8 million Americans)² of the US population. However, less than 45% of individuals with this disorder receive any treatment.

Symptoms of GAD may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Restlessness

  • Sleep problems

  • Muscle tension

  • Fatigue

  • Irritability

Panic disorder

Panic disorder impacts around 2.7% (6 million adults)² of the US population. If you're struggling with panic disorder, you experience sudden, intense panic attacks. These attacks frequently feature more intense, stronger feelings than other types of anxiety disorders.

The feelings of terror associated with a panic attack might come on suddenly and unexpectedly and suddenly, or they could have an identifiable trigger. As panic attacks often mimic heart attacks in their physical symptoms, often someone suffering a panic attack will be taken to the hospital for a proper assessment. It's always best to be on the safe side and immediately seek medical attention if you're not sure whether what you are experiencing is a panic attack or a heart attack.

During a panic attack, you might experience:

  • Heart palpitations (your heart feels like it’s pounding)

  • Sweating

  • Choking sensation

  • Chest pain

Panic attacks can be extremely unsettling. Those who have them frequently spend a great deal of time worrying about their next attack and typically try to avoid potentially triggering situations.

Agoraphobia

If you have agoraphobia, you might experience an intense fear of being unable to get help or being overwhelmed in certain situations. Around 1.3% of people in the US³ experience agoraphobia at some point in their lives.

You will typically feel fearful of being in two or more of the following environments:

  • Crowds or lines

  • Enclosed spaces

  • Public transportation

  • Places outside your home

  • Open spaces

In severe cases, an individual with agoraphobia may not even feel they can leave their home. They're so scared of experiencing a panic attack in public they'd rather stay indoors.

Phobias

Phobias are an extreme or intense fear of specific objects or situations. Some are rational, like a fear of snakes or other potentially dangerous animals or situations. Often, though, the level of fear the individual experiences doesn't match the object or situation and can be considered irrational. For instance, a person may be unable to walk on grass due to a snake phobia.

Similar to other types of anxiety disorders, you might spend much of your time trying to avoid circumstances or situations that could trigger your phobia.

A simple phobia, or specific phobia, is an extreme fear of a certain situation or object. It might cause you to avoid day-to-day situations. Specific phobias impact around 8.7% (19 million adults)² of the US population.

Common phobias include a fear of:

  • Blood

  • Animals (like dogs, spiders, or snakes)

  • Injections (shots)

  • Heights

  • Flying

Social anxiety disorder (SAD)

SAD can cause you to experience overwhelming self-consciousness and worry about day-to-day social situations. You might worry about other people judging you or that you'll open yourself up to ridicule or embarrass yourself when interacting with other people. Individuals with a social anxiety disorder might avoid social situations altogether. SAD impacts approximately 6.8% (15 million adults)² of the US population.

Symptoms of social anxiety disorder might include:

  • Fear

  • Palpitations, sweating,  or other physical symptoms

  • Anxiety

  • Social isolation

Separation anxiety disorder

This condition occurs mostly in children or teenagers, who may worry about being separated from their parents. Children with this condition might fear that their parents won't come back as promised or that they'll be hurt in some way. It often occurs in preschoolers. It can also occur in older kids and adults who experience a stressful event.

Researchers estimate around 1-4% of the general pediatric population⁴ has childhood separation anxiety disorder (CSAD). Adult separation anxiety disorder (ASAD) occurs in around 6.6%⁴ of the general U.S. population.

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder can include:

  • Worrying about being kidnapped or other events that can cause separation from their parents

  • Crying

  • Palpitations

  • Nightmares

  • Rapid breathing

  • Anxiety or nervousness

  • Fear or depression

Feeling anxious vs. anxiety disorder

How do you know if you are feeling anxious or whether you have an anxiety disorder? It's normal to experience some degree of anxiety. You might feel nervous or anxious if you have to:

  • Go to an interview

  • Tackle a work problem

  • Make an important decision

  • Take a test

  • Meet someone new

Anxiety can actually be beneficial as it helps you to identify and manage potentially dangerous situations to keep yourself safe. Anxiety disorders, however, go beyond the lower level fear and regular nervousness you might feel from time to time.

Anxiety disorders occur when:

  • You're unable to control your response to situations

  • You frequently overreact when your emotions are triggered by something

  • Anxiety disrupts your ability to function

An anxiety disorder can make it hard to get through your day. The good news is, there is a range of effective treatments for anxiety disorders.

How can you manage or treat the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are typically treated with psychotherapy, medicine, or a combination of both. There are numerous ways to treat anxiety and you should work with your doctor to pick a treatment plan that will work best for your personal situation.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, also called "talk therapy," can help individuals with anxiety disorders. It must be directed at your specific anxieties and customized to your needs for it to be effective. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are two types of psychotherapy that are frequently used either in combination or alone to treat anxiety disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT teaches you how to think, behave, and react differently to fearful and anxiety-producing situations and objects. CBT could also help you learn social skills that are important for social anxiety disorder treatment. This type of therapy helps you to identify, challenge, and neutralize distorted or unhelpful thoughts underlying your anxiety disorder. CBT can be conducted in individual or group sessions. 

Exposure therapy – This is a type of CBT therapy that helps you to confront the fears underlying your anxiety disorder to encourage you to engage in activities you've been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used in combination with imagery and/or relaxation exercises.

Medication

Medication doesn't cure anxiety disorders, but it can help to ease the symptoms. Doctors, like primary care providers or psychiatrists, are able to prescribe anxiety medication. Some states in the US also allow specially trained psychologists to prescribe anxiety medication. Anti-anxiety drugs are the most common class of medicine used for combating anxiety disorders. Others help to ease symptoms, depending on which anxiety disorder you have and whether you also have other physical or mental health problems.

The following types of medication are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety:

  • Buspirone (anti-anxiety medication)

  • Certain antidepressants

  • Sedatives like benzodiazepines or beta-blockers (for short-term management of symptoms)

It is important to talk with your doctor about the potential benefits, risks, and side effects, risks, of the medication they may recommend to you.

The lowdown

Many of us experience anxiety from time to time in the normal course of our lives in response to stressful life events, such as changing jobs, moving, or financial difficulties. However,  when symptoms of anxiety become more severe than what a normal response would be to a certain trigger, and it interferes with your life, you may have an anxiety disorder.

An anxiety disorder can be life-altering and debilitating, but with the help of your doctor, therapist, and/or another medical professional, it can be treated and managed. The first step is to recognize the symptoms and seek help.

  1. Diagnosis and Management of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder in Adults | American Family Physician

  2. Facts & Statistics | Anxiety & Depression Association of America

  3. Agoraphobia | National Institute of Mental Health

  4. Separation Anxiety (2021)



Join our email list

Want all the latest clinical trial and HealthMatch news in your inbox? We thought you might! Sign up below.