What Are Common Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders are typically diagnosed when a person's fear of nonthreatening situations, places, events, or objects becomes extreme and uncontrollable.

An anxiety disorder may also be diagnosed if you have general feelings of fear or worry that interfere with your daily life and that have lasted at least six months.

Most people with an anxiety disorder have a combination of physical and psychological symptoms.

There are a number of anxiety disorders, and each one has unique symptoms, but there’s one symptom they all have in common: near-constant fear or worry about things that may happen now or in the future. Read on to learn what the symptoms are and how anxiety disorders are diagnosed.

What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders? 

Psychological symptoms may include:

  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Feeling tense or jumpy
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Constantly watching for signs of danger

Physical symptoms may include:

  • Rapid or pounding heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tremors or twitches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea

What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety or Panic Attacks?

What we think of as anxiety attacks are actually panic attacks. A panic attack is the sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort that peaks within 10 minutes and typically lasts no longer than 30 minutes.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a panic attack also involves four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Parasthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying
Researchers think that panic attacks come about because the brain is telling the body that the fight-or-flight response, which includes a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing, should kick in, even though there may be no threat at all. Scientists also theorize that the amygdala, which is the brain’s fear-processing hub, may also be activated during a panic attack.

Panic attacks may come on because of a particular event, or they may come on for no reason at all. It’s been estimated that almost 23 percent of people will have at least one panic attack in their lifetime.

If your panic attacks are recurring, you will likely be diagnosed with panic disorder. Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that’s characterized by persistent worry about future panic attacks or their consequences.

Noah Clyman, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of NYC Cognitive Therapy, a private psychotherapy practice in New York City, says that panic attacks do not have to be feared. “By learning to correctly interpret bodily sensations and not relate to them as dangerous,” he says, “your fear level can go down.”

RELATED: When Anxiety Becomes a Disorder

When Are Anxiety Symptoms Not a Sign of Anxiety?  

Some of the physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder may be symptoms of other medical conditions, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Depression
  • Lyme disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

Anxiety often coexists with other chronic health conditions, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Hepatitis C
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Researchers are not sure why anxiety and conditions like these occur together, but one explanation may be that the stress of dealing with a chronic illness could contribute to developing a mood disorder.

It could also be that anxiety is a precursor to the kind of cognitive decline at the center of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

It’s been estimated that anxiety disorders are present in 5 to 21 percent of those with dementia (Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia).

A review of studies published in November 2018 in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that anxiety is a risk factor for both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia and that the “protective value” of treating anxiety needs further exploration.

A study of more than 12,000 adults published in October 2017 in Aging and Mental Health found that anxiety, along with depression and sleep disturbances, was associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers believe that the stress hormone cortisol may be at work in this connection. Whenever you become anxious or stressed, you induce a flood of cortisol, and it could be that a consistent presence of the hormone may damage parts of the brain that process memory and executive functioning.

It’s important to see your doctor if any changes in your mood or health are concerning you. Your doctor can help you determine what disorder or medical condition you may be suffering from, and what assistance you might need.

RELATED: 7 Causes of Anxiety

How Is an Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed? 

Here’s what you can expect when you visit your doctor.

  • Your doctor or nurse will ask you questions about your symptoms.
  • Your doctor may perform a physical exam and order lab tests to rule out other health problems.
  • If no other health problems are found, your doctor may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist to make a diagnosis.
  • A psychiatrist or psychologist will identify the specific type of anxiety disorder that’s causing your symptoms.
  • This doctor will also look for any other mental health conditions that you may be experiencing, including depression.
It’s important not to delay seeing your doctor if you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms. Your anxiety may worsen over time, and the sooner you get help, the easier it will be to treat an anxiety disorder.

What Makes Anxiety Symptoms Worse? 

Caffeine, alcohol, and some over-the-counter cold medicines — particularly decongestants — can amplify and aggravate anxiety symptoms.

Additional reporting by Carlene Bauer.

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