Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a normal emotion. For example, you may feel nervous when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision.
Anxiety disorders are different, though. They are a group of mental illnesses, and the distress they cause can keep you from carrying on with your life normally.
For people who have one, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. But with treatment, many people can manage those feelings and get back to a fulfilling life.
Here are 6 common symptoms of an anxiety disorder, as well as how to reduce anxiety naturally and when to seek professional help.
1. Excessive Worrying
The hallmark of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)—the broadest type of anxiety—is worrying too much about everyday things, large and small. But what constitutes “too much”?
In the case of GAD, it means having persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week, for six months. Also, the anxiety must be so bad that it interferes with daily life and is accompanied by noticeable symptoms, such as fatigue.
“The distinction between an anxiety disorder and just having normal anxiety is whether your emotions are causing a lot of suffering and dysfunction,” says Sally Winston, PsyD, co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland in Towson.
2. Feeling Agitated
When someone is feeling anxious, part of their sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive.
This kicks off a cascade of effects throughout the body, such as a racing pulse, sweaty palms, shaky hands and dry mouth.
These symptoms occur because your brain believes you have sensed danger, and it is preparing your body to react to the threat.
Your body shunts blood away from your digestive system and toward your muscles in case you need to run or fight. It also increases your heart rate and heightens your senses.
While these effects would be helpful in the case of a true threat, they can be debilitating if the fear is all in your head.
Some research even suggests that people with anxiety disorders are not able to reduce their arousal as quickly as people without anxiety disorders, which means they may feel the effects of anxiety for a longer period of time.
Restlessness is another common symptom of anxiety, especially in children and teens.
When someone is experiencing restlessness, they often describe it as feeling “on edge” or having an “uncomfortable urge to move.”
One study in 128 children diagnosed with anxiety disorders found that 74% reported restlessness as one of their main anxiety symptoms.
While restlessness does not occur in all people with anxiety, it is one of the red flags doctors frequently look for when making a diagnosis.
If you experience restlessness on the majority of days for more than six months, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Becoming easily fatigued is another potential symptom of generalized anxiety disorder.
This symptom can be surprising to some, as anxiety is commonly associated with hyperactivity or arousal.
For some, fatigue can follow an anxiety attack, while for others, the fatigue can be chronic.
It’s unclear whether this fatigue is due to other common symptoms of anxiety, such as insomnia or muscle tension, or whether it may be related to the hormonal effects of chronic anxiety.
However, it is important to note that fatigue can also be a sign of depression or other medical conditions, so fatigue alone is not enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder.
5. Difficulty Concentrating
Many people with anxiety report having difficulty concentrating.
One study including 157 children and teens with generalized anxiety disorder found that more than two-thirds had difficulty concentrating.
Another study in 175 adults with the same disorder found that almost 90% reported having difficulty concentrating. The worse their anxiety was, the more trouble they had.
Some studies show that anxiety can interrupt working memory, a type of memory responsible for holding short-term information. This may help explain the dramatic decrease in performance people often experience during periods of high anxiety.
However, difficulty concentrating can also be a symptom of other medical conditions, such as an attention deficit disorder or depression, so it is not enough evidence to diagnose an anxiety disorder.
6. Chronic indigestion
Anxiety may start in the mind, but it often manifests itself in the body through physical symptoms, like chronic digestive problems. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition characterized by stomachaches, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea, “is basically an anxiety in the digestive tract,” Winston says.
IBS isn’t always related to anxiety, but the two often occur together and can make each other worse. The gut is very sensitive to psychological stress—and, vice versa, the physical and social discomfort of chronic digestive problems can make a person feel more anxious.