Signs and symptoms of anxiety

If you think you're suffering with anxiety, these are the key signs and symptoms to look out for.

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Page medically reviewed by Dr William Shanahan, Medical Director (Private) and Clinical Director of Addictions (BAO, BCh, DCH, D'OBS, FRCPsych, MB), Priory Hospital Roehampton, in March 2022.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience from time-to-time. Characterised as a sense of fear, trepidation or worry, anxiety is a natural human response to feeling threatened. You might have felt anxious when you had your last job interview, or spoke in front of a large audience, as things like this can make us feel ‘out of our comfort zone’.

While feelings of anxiety can be entirely normal, some people find their anxiety is so severe it damages their ability to lead a normal life. This is when anxiety becomes a mental health disorder, that needs professional treatment.

What does anxiety feel like? Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety statistics show that this condition affects millions of people in the UK every year. Today, anxiety has many effective treatments and a full recovery is perfectly achievable.

Whether they are psychological or physical symptoms of anxiety, the disorder can manifest itself differently in different people. If you think you might be suffering from anxiety, here are the key signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • A persistent sense of worry, apprehension, dread or hopelessness, which are often disproportionate to the situation
  • Constantly worrying about something negative happening
  • Feeling trapped and unable to find a ‘way out’. Wanting to 'flee'
  • Anger, irritability and impatience – often for no apparent reason
  • Feeling fearful, paranoid and tense
  • Mood swings
  • Extreme stress
  • Feeling tearful and emotionally tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low self-esteem

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • Needing the toilet more or less often
  • Sweating and hot or cold flushes
  • Shortness of breath and tightness in your chest
  • Increased heartbeat or palpitations
  • Muscle tension and tiredness
  • Appetite changes – either increased or reduced appetite which may also result in weight fluctuations
  • Sleep disturbances – reduced sleep because you're unable to ‘switch off’ from your anxiety, or finding that you're sleeping long hours and struggle to get out of bed
  • Panic attacks
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Reduced work or school performance
  • Taking time off sick from work or school
  • Inability to manage day-to-day tasks effectively
  • Drug and alcohol abuse as a way of self-medicating

Who can get anxiety symptoms?

Anxiety as a feeling can, and does, happen to anyone. However, for people who develop severe anxiety and are diagnosed with a type of anxiety disorder, the causes could be one or a combination of things. Some common causes for developing an anxiety disorder include:

Life events

Going through a significant life event or experience can be a major trigger for severe anxiety. These events may bring about change and upheaval in your life that you're struggling to cope with. The stress that these events bring can result in anxiety. Examples include:

  • Losing someone who's close to you
  • The break-up of a marriage or relationship
  • Money issues
  • Working long hours or suddenly losing your job
  • Worrying about issues in the world around you, such as a pandemic, war, famine, or concerns around the environment

Childhood or past trauma

During your childhood years, you're still developing emotionally as a human being. If traumatic events or experiences occur during childhood, it may affect your ability to deal with stressful scenarios in adulthood – as you were unable to fully develop the right coping strategies as a child. Some of these experiences include:

  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Divorce of your parents
  • Loss of a parent – especially at an early age
  • Being bullied in school, or struggling to make friends

These issues might also affect you as an adult, especially if you bottle up any feelings you have around these issues.

They may leave you with a number of negative automatic thoughts: 'I’m a failure, I’m no good at anything', or negative assumptions: 'I'll never make anything of myself; everything I touch is doomed to failure'. These feelings may have been implanted in our subconscious minds many years ago by a figure in authority. We want to get past them but we fear they might be true.

Other health complications

It's common for people who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder to also have issues with other areas of their health. For example, anxiety is common symptom of depression, and many people who live with depression might develop an anxiety disorder because of their struggles with mental health.

Physical health problems can also intertwine with mental health in a way that contributes to developing anxiety. If you have a history of health issues, you might develop health anxiety, where you become worried that small sensations are major health problems. A serious physical health issue might also lead to developing anxiety, especially if it severely affects your quality of life. It's also worth noting that some medication may list anxiety as a side effect.

Sometimes, an unbearable anxiety can be 'converted' into a more acceptable physical symptom such as back pain, or migraine, or even a paralysis. We can search for an underlying physical problem and have numerous investigations that fail to find a source. It is then that the possibility of everything being caused by anxiety arises.

Paul's inspirational story of mental health recovery

When to get help for anxiety

If your anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to lead a normal life, or your symptoms for anxiety have persisted over many days and weeks, it might be time to get support. Anxiety is a treatable mental health condition, and sufferers are able to make a full recovery and return to normal.

The first place to go is your GP. They can assess your symptoms, offer a diagnosis for anxiety and outline treatment options.

Alternatively, you could get in touch with Priory directly, where our world class team of mental health practitioners help people deal with their anxiety across the UK every single day. We can diagnose any mental health issues that you're struggling with and then outline a course of anxiety treatment that will help you get your life back on track.

In most cases, anxiety can be treated with therapy and/or medication. These can be delivered through one of our many different treatment programmes, such as intensive inpatient stays, outpatient or day care therapy sessions that fit in with your life and work commitments. We also offer online therapy that allows you to recover from the comfort of your own home.

Whichever course of treatment is right for you, get in touch with Priory and start your journey to recovery today.

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