I got married in 2002, so my husband and I are coming up on our 20th wedding anniversary this July, but on that date we had already been a couple for more than two and a half years, and I definitely thought I knew him better than anyone else. But we are different. Emotionally speaking, I’m an open book; I wear every feeling like a badge of honor, and I’ve only just started to learn how to discern when I’m somewhere or with someone that makes it a better idea to disguise them. My husband, on the other hand, can turn his outward emotional expression off, and while he is aware of that and can choose when to be more expressive, sometimes he slips into a default mode of all-business, and then he is hard to read.
Just as each person experiences and responds to their own mental/emotional health differently, it is sometimes difficult to really determine if you are experiencing anxiety, and even if you know you are, making the choice to reach out for help is even more complicated.
I want to back-track a bit today and talk about what anxiety is, what it looks like, and why it’s important to acknowledge and evaluate how it’s affecting you.
So, how do you determine if you’re experiencing anxiety, and how do you decide if you should see a doctor or therapist? Well, you can start by checking the Mayo Clinic’s list of common signs and symptoms:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
You don’t need to have all, or even a majority, of these symptoms in order to get help. In fact, you don’t have to have any. If you have a consistent or recurring sense of fear, with or without a known cause, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional right away.
While the Mayo Clinic’s list is a great place to start, I’d like to offer you my personalized version. I’ve been dealing with anxiety for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been able to manage (not cure) my symptoms over time. For me, chronic anxiety is a problem that I have to manage, but the effort is worth it. In fact, the personal care skills I’ve practiced have allowed me to drastically reduce the strength and frequency of my anxiety attacks by using certain self-care efforts as soon as I feel them coming.
So here’s my personal list.
- Racing thoughts:
My thinking speeds up and everything seems like an emergency. There are dirty dishes in the sink? They need to get done, like, yesterday. The wifi is slow? Call Verizon right now. When I look at this symptom logically (ie., when I’m not anxious) I can see the purpose it serves. My fear, because anxiety is a form of fear, is directed to the future. Something is coming, or may be coming, that I can’t control. So I try to control everything else. No matter how much I do to prepare, I may bomb at that worship team audition, I might not get the job I applied for, or my daughter may not make the track team. But dirty dishes? Completely under my control. By getting the dishes done I’m reminding myself that, while this upcoming important moment isn’t a sure thing, there are plenty of things in my life that are. So based on this observation I now know that, if I find myself panicking about something as inconsequential as dirty dishes, I need to stop, take a few deep breaths, and figure out what I’m really worried about.
- Being too prepared:
This is a problem I have all the time, even when I’m not facing an upcoming challenge I’m worried about, but it is a consistent sign of my generallly anxious demeanor and it ramps up significantly when I’m especially anxious. For example, recently I had to travel by air alone for a medical appointment. I would be gone and on my own for three full days, and while I was hoping to enjoy the time alone, traveling and staying alone in a city I’d never been to before was pretty scary. So I overpacked. Extra clothes, extra shoes, three different novels and two magazines, etc. I can see the immature but understandable reasoning in this too. I didn’t have enough information to know what would happen, so I packed for every potential outcome, because I can control my stuff.
- Talking too much and too fast:
This is a symptom of the manic-like rush of energy I get in this state of anxiety. Even while I’m physically over-preparing, I’m also talking like crazy. Sometimes I’m talking about whatever situation I’m worried about, but it’s just as likely that I’m acting silly and happy. And it is an act, albeit one that can sometimes trick even me. I’m cracking corny jokes, I’m telling anyone who’ll listen, and probably people who are unwilling too, that I have this exciting thing I’m preparing for. I’m acting like I’m full in control of my words, actions, and feelings, but sometimes this symptom is a sign that I’m headed for a full-blown panic attack.
- Muscle tension
In most cases I’m aware of the signs of my anxiety symptoms on some level, even while they’re happening, but with muscle tension it always seems to sneak up on me. While I am distracting myself with thinking and packing and chattering, and then BAM, I have a migraine headache. My body and brain are giving up.
- Physical weakness without a medical reason for it
In this case I’m shutting down, and that is a sign of extreme overwhelm for me. To be clear, I’m not faking weakness or illness in these situations; I am succumbing to anxiety-induced physical pain. For me, this usually includes dizziness, a headache or migraine, and sometimes nausea and vomiting. On some level I’ve realized that I can’t prevent the unknown and unexpected, so my body shuts down. Often this happens because the anxious energy is completely spent, and my body is reacting my hyperactive efforts to control the uncontrollable. I’ve packed the suitcase to bursting, I’ve washed every dish in the house, I’ve used up every ounce of energy I have trying to be ready for anything. The result? I’m sick and ready for nothing.
- Zoning out
Having run out of nervous energy, I’m lying in bed with a migraine and muscle pain, but still too worked up to relax or sleep. It looks like me mindlessly scrolling through social media, playing simple games on an app, anything that keeps my mind on something inconsequential but in my full control.
I present this personalized list of anxiety symptoms to help you look closely at what you’re thinking and doing before you’re entirely aware that you’re anxious. Maybe some of these resonate with you, and if so, they may help you recognize the onset of severe anxiety in the future. But even if you can only see some of these signs in hindsight, it could help you determine how or when to get help.
And, of course, if you feel that you or someone else is in danger, for any reason, call your local emergency services phone number or 911.
Next week I’ll show you how to document your anxiety symptoms so you can present them to your doctor, therapist, or counselor.