What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
It is often difficult to determine the difference between day-to-day worry and anxiety. After that, it can be even more difficult to tell the difference between anxiety that is helpful, and that which is not.
Describing anxiety as ‘helpful’ might, on the face of it, seem a bit odd. After all, who would want to feel anxious? However, there are times when a degree of anxiety can actually help our focus, motivation or performance. For example, it is understandable to experience some anxiety when preparing for or sitting examinations. Feeling that ‘edge’ can help really sharpen our thinking on the task in hand. The same could be true for other situations in sport, for example, where some adrenaline can help us perform to a high standard.
Nevertheless, while we might be able to acknowledge the more helpful attributes of anxiety, it can also become debilitating, exhausting and overwhelming when our ability to control it is compromised. High and sustained levels of anxiety can begin to negatively shape how we feel, who we are, and what we do.
‘Fight or Flight’
We commonly talk about anxiety in the context of the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. This biological mechanism evolved in early human beings, and physically equips our bodies to fight off or run away from danger. The response includes increased heart-rate, faster breathing, racing thoughts and raised blood pressure. The FoF mechanism evolved to help us hunt effectively, evade predators, and endure the extremes of nature. Our lifestyles have changed drastically since then, however, while the FoF mechanism in our bodies has not. So, when the FoF mechanism kicks in to try and tackle more modern day ‘dangers’, such as financial worries and exam stress, it finds itself unable to solve anything and goes into overdrive, leading to anxiety and panic attacks.
At the simplest level, anxiety might be becoming problematic if:
- It is experienced at a very intense level – heart beating fast, feeling nauseous, a sensation of trembling or that we might faint
- It is experienced without any apparent reason or obvious trigger, or when we might otherwise expect ourselves to feel relaxed
- It is linked to particular thoughts or fears. For example: anxiety can sometimes be experienced in very specific ways – social anxiety might mean that we avoid social situations; health anxiety (hyochondria) might lead to obsessive worrying about our health
It is not uncommon for anxiety and depression to be experienced at the same time. There are other sensations and experiences associated with anxiety that are very similar to those of depression. These include:
Irregular sleep or change in sleep pattern
It is very common for anxiety to have an effect on sleep, leading to insomnia and sleep disruptions like early waking.
Sometimes there is a pattern of excessive sleep (hypersomnia) – relentless worrying is inherently exhausting! Regular, sound sleep is essential for healthy functioning, and sleep disruption is a particularly debilitating weapon in the anxiety arsenal.
Appetite or weight changes
Regular healthy eating is essential for general well-being.
Loss of appetite and weight loss, or sometimes overeating and weight gain, can be a sign that anxiety is interfering with the healthy eating habits essential for the maintenance of mood levels and general functioning.
Crying serves a very useful purpose – stress hormones are released through tears.
However, if you find yourself crying much more than usual, for no clear reasons, it may be a sign that anxiety is at work.
Do you find it hard to settle down to a task, or to sit still for any length of time? Some people are naturally energetic, but anxiety can bring a troubling sense of restlessness and an inability to focus. Being constantly keyed up and over-alert in this way can be exhausting, in turn decreasing resistance to anxiety.
Poor concentration and difficulty making decisions
Anxiety can often lead to ‘automatic negative thoughts’. Poor concentration and/or difficulty solving problems or making decisions can be due to ‘blanking things out’, or may indicate the need to address the thinking habits that are allowing anxiety a foothold.
Feelings of helplessness
There are many uncertainties in life and things that cannot be controlled, yet many cultures seem to overstate the importance of individuals having ‘control’ over their lives. Having bad things happen and not being able to prevent them can then leave someone vulnerable to the generalised feeling of helplessness that anxiety feeds on and perpetuates.
Things We Can Do
The most common thing we tend to do when experiencing anxiety is to try and avoid those situations that might, or do, make us feel anxious. For example, if someone is worried about going to a lecture, they might avoid going. In the short term, this avoidance helps them feel better – after all, they have dodged the trigger (or ‘stimulus’). However, what that person has inadvertently done is simply reinforce their anxiety by giving themselves the message that they can’t cope with such situations. So, when the next lecture comes around, the anxiety they feel in the build up to it will only be even worse than last time.
Therefore, the best way of tackling anxiety is through ‘graded exposure’ – starting with small doses, forcing yourself to actually endure these anxiety-provoking situations, rather than avoiding them, in conjunction with learning techniques to help cope with the anxious feelings. Over time, you will realise you can deal with the situation far better than you perceive.
There are a number of strategies across this site that you might begin to use to help deal with anxiety. Try taking a look at Making Changes and Self-Support and, in the meantime, read a little more about anxiety here.