Like all emotions, anxiety is healthy, and we’re all prone to feeling it sometimes. Anxiety can become a debilitating problem, though, when the stress you feel is no longer in proportion to the situation. An upcoming test, job interview, or first date may make you feel anxious, and that’s healthy. But, if you feel symptoms of anxiety absent any apparent reason, or everyday things make you anxious—leaving your home, for example—it may be time to see a mental health professional. To know if your anxiety is unmanageable, you have to know the symptoms.
1. Physical Symptoms
The physical symptoms of anxiety may include an upset stomach, excessive sweating, headache, rapid heartbeat, and trouble breathing. If you get a stomach ache every time someone invites you to a social function; if you sweat through your shirt whenever you leave the house, even in the middle of winter; or if you feel like your heart is beating so fast it might burst when talking to a stranger on the phone, you may be unhealthily anxious. If your body regularly reacts to everyday stressors the way a caveman would if a lion chased him, your anxiety is no longer healthy.
2. Cognitive Symptoms
Memory issues, trouble concentrating, and insomnia are also symptoms of an anxiety problem. If you can’t fall asleep or wake up repeatedly during the night because you can’t stop thinking about things that stress you out, anxiousness is ruling over you. The same goes for if you can’t focus on work, or sit through a movie, or read a book, or if you seem to be continually forgetting things that happened even recently. When you’re severely anxious about something, even if the thing is “irrational,” it can be hard to function normally.
3. Procrastination and Avoidance
Whether it’s procrastinating about doing the thing that triggers your anxiety—like putting off an errand or not reading an important email until you’re “ready to deal with it”—or avoiding doing just about everything, excessive procrastination and avoidance are both signs of an anxiety issue. We all put off starting unpleasant or difficult tasks sometimes, but when you spend more time avoiding than doing, it may be time to seek outside help.
4. Overthinking and Constant Worrying
If worrying keeps you from functioning or you’re overthinking so much that you can’t focus on important work or sleep at night, you may have an anxiety problem. Your mind races, you lose track of your surroundings, and you’re so caught up in a storm of stressful thoughts that you miss your freeway exit. Anxiety tips over from healthy to unhealthy when it disrupts your life. If a recent health diagnosis has you worried, that’s totally normal. If you’re afraid that you’re dying every time you sneeze, that’s not.
5. Feeling Agitated and Restless
If you feel on edge, you can’t stop moving, and you’re quick to anger, you may be anxious. I’ve written before about how anger can disguise itself as anxiety, but did you know that anxiety can also disguise itself as anger? Anger can be a way to shield you from stressful thoughts. By raging at someone else, you can blame your anxious feelings on an outside force. And if you’re always moving, you don’t have time to ruminate on anxious thoughts. But neither response is healthy or helpful in the long term. When you feel agitated and restless more often than not, when you can’t stop moving and get easily annoyed or are prone to snap at people, you may have a serious problem with anxiety.
Often people mistake a panic attack for a heart attack. Tightness in your chest, rapid heartbeat, sweating and shaking, shortness of breath, and an upset stomach can easily be mistaken for a heart attack. It’s important to know the symptoms of a heart attack so that you don’t dismiss one by thinking it’s a panic attack or do the opposite and call 911 when you should call a psychologist. Frequent panic attacks are a sign you may have a panic disorder.
To differentiate between healthy and unhealthy anxiety, ask yourself: Is this manageable? If your anxiety keeps you from sleeping, working, social interactions, or errands, you may want to reach out to a therapist. If you feel anxious more than half the week for six months or longer, it’s probably time to seek help.