Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. An estimated 44 million American adults suffer from anxiety, and–even though the disorders are highly treatable–only about one-third of those receive treatment!
Do you get the jitters when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior. To a degree, this is completely normal. But for those with an anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, disabling, overwhelming, and excessive, to the point where they can be filled with irrational dread of everyday situations and it interferes with their daily life. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.
If this is you, listen to me–there is no shame! Many people suffer from one type of anxiety disorder or another…even I used to! When I was little, I would fret over everything to the point that my parents coined Bob Marley’s famous beat as my theme song: “Don’t worry, be happy!” The best news of all is that help is available. My hope with this post is twofold: First, to offer a couple signs to help you differentiate between everyday anxieties and an actual anxiety disorder; and second, to eradicate the false notion that having anxiety or a “disorder” means that you are broken.
Let’s start by giving anxiety disorders a face. Anxiety disorders are real–just like physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States, and they manifest themselves in many different forms including the following: Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
I am certain that all of us have either experienced or heard of some of the above conditions. But does that mean you have an anxiety disorder? Although the distinction between an official diagnosis and “normal” anxiety isn’t always clear, here are some signs that may indicate your worries are clinically significant:
- Sleep problems. You struggle falling asleep or staying awake (this is more than just tossing and turning with anticipation the night before a big speech or job interview). I mean that you routinely find yourself lying awake, worried or agitated—about a specific problem or even nothing in particular.
- Stage fright. Sure, most everyone get butterflies before addressing a group of people or being in the spotlight. But if the fear is so strong that no amount of coaching or practicing will placate it, or if you spend an excessive amount of time thinking and worrying about it, you may have a form of social anxiety disorder. Those with social anxiety will worry for days or even weeks leading up to a particular event or situation, and may consider extreme methods to evade said responsibility! Even if they do manage to go through with it, they tend to be incredibly uncomfortable and will dwell on their performance for a long time afterward, worrying about how they were judged.
- Self-consciousness. We are all self-conscious about how we look or appear to others–especially when we are in the limelight. This symptom may be an indication of an anxiety disorder when your self-consciousness is provoked by everyday situations such as making one-on-one conversation at a party, or eating and drinking in front of even a small number of people. In these situations, people with social anxiety disorder tend to feel like all eyes are on them, and they often experience blushing, trembling, nausea, profuse sweating, or difficulty talking. These symptoms can be so disruptive that they make it hard to meet new people, maintain relationships, and advance at work or school!
- Muscle tension. Near-constant muscle tension (from clenching your jaw, balling your fists, or flexing muscles throughout your body) often accompanies anxiety disorders. This is the sort of tension that even regular exercise and stretching cannot abate. (Muscle tension of this severity can be so persistent and pervasive that people who have lived with it for a long time may stop noticing it after a while!)
- Chronic indigestion. Anxiety may start in the mind, but it often manifests itself in the body. A common example is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), in which the individual experiences near constant stomach aches, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea. This is basically anxiety in the digestive tract! (A note: IBS is not always related to anxiety, but the two often occur together and can make each other worse.)
- Panic. A panic attack can be a sudden, gripping feeling of fear and helplessness that can last for several minutes and be accompanied by scary physical symptoms such as breathing problems, a pounding or racing heart, tingling or numb hands, sweating, weakness or dizziness, chest pain, stomach pain, and feeling hot or cold. It is possible to be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and have panic symptoms, but not be diagnosed with panic disorder. Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them repeatedly may be diagnosed with panic disorder.
- Flashbacks. Reliving a disturbing or traumatic event–like a violent accident or the sudden death of a loved one–is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which shares features with many anxiety disorders. (In fact, up until very recently, PTSD was seen as a type of anxiety disorder rather than a stand-alone condition.)
- Perfectionism. This prevalent and obsessive mindset goes hand in hand with anxiety disorders. This is where you are constantly judging yourself, and have relentless anticipatory anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your [unattainably high] standards. Some individuals with perfectionism even see fit to punish themselves through publicly slandering themselves or taking on extra responsibilities when they fail to reach the high standards they have placed upon themselves.
- Compulsive behaviors. In order to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person’s obsessiveness and intrusive thoughts must be accompanied by compulsive action or behavior. This may be mental (like repeatedly reminding yourself that things will be okay) or physical (like excessive hand-washing, not leaving home until your makeup is perfect, hair plucking, or repeatedly checking to ensure the oven is off).
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, and it is more prevalent in women, in people under 35, and in those who live in North America or Western European countries. According to these statistics, many people experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime!
As I have said previously and will continue to emphasize, having a mental illness like an anxiety disorder is not a life sentence. You are not damaged goods. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. If we are going to take the stigma out of mental illness, we need to believe it ourselves first! This will happen as you recognize your worth and find the courage to accept help. Just a friendly reminder that help is readily available for those with anxiety disorders. There are a myriad of medications and treatments–including therapy from a licensed, experienced therapist–that can help you or your loved one control anxiety. Help is one click or phone call away. Please contact me today!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Treatment”
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Understand the Facts”
- The Atlantic: “Surviving Anxiety”
- Cluff Counseling: “Creating Conversation Around Your Mental Illness”
- Cluff Counseling: “Depression is Not a Life Sentence”
- Cluff Counseling: “How To Rise and Shine”
- Cluff Counseling: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder At a Glance”
- Cluff Counseling: “Reliving the Horrors: PTSD”
- Cluff Counseling: “Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Illness”
- Everyday Health: “All About Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment”
- Health: “12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder”
- National Institute of Mental Health: “Anxiety Disorders”