We have all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. However, it’s important to understand the difference between temporary anxiety caused by stress or other major life events and longer term anxiety that could be the sign of an anxiety disorder.

What are anxiety symptoms?

When you experience anxiety your body reacts and begins looking for potential danger, which triggers your fight or flight response. As such, the symptoms of anxiety are wide-ranging and can include:  

  • Feeling unsettled, stressed, nervous, lethargic, or weak
  • Having a sense of dread or panic
  • Problems focusing on anything beyond your current worries
  • Wanting to avoid stressors that could trigger anxiety
  • Obsessive or intrusive thoughts
  • Anxiety around a past life event that affected you negatively
  • Issues with falling or staying asleep
  • Sweating, trembling, or twitching
  • Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
  • An increased heart rate 

There are several different types of anxiety disorders and symptoms can vary depending on the disorder and the individual.

What can anxiety do to your body?

In addition to the immediate symptoms you may experience, anxiety can also lead to (or exacerbate) other conditions over time.

Depression and other mental health disorders often occur in conjunction with anxiety disorders, and anxiety can worsen the symptoms of these. Additionally, anxiety can cause gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and chronic pain.

Some patients with anxiety disorders report experiencing chronic insomnia. Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are also linked to anxiety disorders.

When should you seek treatment for anxiety?

Anxiety can be difficult to understand. We all experience it from time to time, but you should consider seeing a doctor if:

  • You feel like you're worrying so much that it's affecting your professional and/or personal life
  • Your fear or anxiety is upsetting to you and you find it hard to manage
  • You feel depressed or have other mental health concerns as well as anxiety
  • You are having problems with substance misuse
  • You believe your anxiety might be associated with a physical health issue
  • You are experiencing suicidal thoughts or performing suicidal behaviors — in this case, dial 911 and seek emergency treatment immediately

Like many other medical conditions, anxiety is easier to treat if you seek help early.

How is anxiety diagnosed?

Your doctor can determine if your anxiety is linked to an underlying physical health issue. If it is, they can work with you to figure out a treatment plan that will allay the symptoms of your anxiety.

If your anxiety is not caused by an underlying health condition, you may be referred to mental health specialists who are trained in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. Your mental healthcare provider will conduct a psychological evaluation during your first appointment.  

This involves a private meeting with your mental healthcare provider, who will ask you to describe your thoughts, feelings, and symptoms in order to better understand your anxiety and arrive at a diagnosis.

Causes and risk factors of anxiety disorders

We’re still learning about what can cause anxiety disorders. What we do know is that stressful or traumatic life events can trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already susceptible to anxiety — inherited traits can also be a contributing factor.

In some cases, anxiety can be associated with an underlying health issue. Anxiety symptoms can sometimes be the first signs of a physical illness. Examples of medical problems that can be linked to anxiety include diabetes, thyroid problems, respiratory disorders, heart disease, substance misuse or withdrawal, and chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome.

There a number of factors which may put you at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder: 

  • Stress: if you have a serious illness, concerns about your future or your treatment can result in anxiety. A build up of stress over time — or stress resulting from a major event (such as the death of a loved one) — can also trigger anxiety
  • Trauma: people who suffered abuse or trauma in their childhood are at increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Adults who experience trauma can also develop anxiety disorders
  • Other mental health disorders: those with other mental health disorders (depression, for example) often also have an anxiety disorder
  • Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder: according to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorders can run in families
  • Drugs or alcohol: substance misuse (or substance withdrawal) can lead to or exacerbate anxiety
  • Personality: people with certain personality traits are more likely to develop anxiety disorders than others

What are the most common treatments for anxiety?

Your doctor or mental healthcare provider will determine the best treatment plan for your anxiety based on your individual situation. You may be prescribed medication or advised to attend therapy sessions — or both.

It’s important to remember that there is no instant fix: it will take time to see results in your anxiety treatment. There are steps you can take at home (in conjunction with the treatment plan provided by your doctor or mental healthcare provider) to manage your anxiety.

Following a simple exercise routine — especially if it involves outdoor activity — can be beneficial in relieving stress. You may also choose to avoid alcohol and recreational drugs, which can worsen anxiety. If you’re struggling with quitting, your doctor or a local support group can provide help.

Reducing your intake of stimulants (like nicotine and caffeine) may also prove helpful in managing your anxiety as these substances can increase the severity of symptoms. Many people find relaxation and stress management techniques — such as meditating or practising yoga — encourage them to relax and lessen the symptoms of their anxiety. Getting enough high quality sleep can also alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

Even in severe cases, anxiety disorders can be treated and managed. Everyone is different and it may take some time to find the approach that works for you. Be patient with the process and yourself, and always follow the advice of your healthcare provider.