How Can I Tell If I Have Anxiety, and What Do I Do About It?

Portrait of pensive young adult in hooded shirt holding coffee cup and looking away while standing at homeMark paced around his apartment. It was too quiet. He turned up the music and checked himself in the mirror. “No,” he grumbled, heading to his room for yet another change.

His phone started ringing. “Dude! Where are you already?!” He was late. Again. He took a last look, brushed his fingers through his hair, exhaled in a huff, and finally left.

The place was buzzing. The whole gang was there. He smiled, hugged, and high-fived. These were his peeps. Still, he couldn’t stop fidgeting. Eye contact made him uncomfortable, and he felt nervous about keeping a conversation going. A part of him wanted to stay, and a part of him wanted to leave. “I need a drink,” he said to himself.

A question I’ve been asked frequently of late is, “How can a person tell if they have anxiety?” At some point, the same person asking me this question would exclaim something along the lines of, “I’m always so anxious!” I find it interesting how often people express feeling anxiety and yet seem unable to recognize it.

Mental health literacy, a term coined in the mid-90s, refers to an individual’s knowledge of mental health as well as their ability to tell when there’s an issue, what treatment options to consider, self-help tools to utilize, and methods of supporting others who might be dealing with such issues. When a person lacks mental health literacy, they are less likely to seek help, often because they may not even realize there is anything they could receive help for. Poor MHL has been identified as a key obstacle to people receiving services that could, effectively, improve quality of life and overall well-being.

Can You Recognize Anxiety?

As it turns out, anxiety is one of the most commonly unrecognized mental health issues. In fact, less than half of all Americans can recognize anxiety, according to Michigan State University, and researchers in Britain discovered, of the different types of anxiety, participants had the most difficulty recognizing panic and panic attacks (only 1.26% of people could successfully identify panic), generalized anxiety (GAD) (2.84% of people could identify) and separation anxiety (5.99% could identify). In Australia, a survey of some six thousand participants found only 9.2% respondents could successfully recognize social phobia/social anxiety. Yet another study, cross-cultural research focused on British, Hong Kong, and Malaysian participants, found social anxiety to be one of the least recognizable mental health concerns.

Though treatable, anxiety can have a significant impact on daily life and function. It can rob people of experiencing life more fully by leaving them exhausted and easily agitated and by making it difficult to focus. In school-age children and adolescents, anxiety often impacts the ability to learn and make friends at school. In adults, anxiety can disrupt social life and impact confidence and success in the workplace. People of all ages are also likely to expend a great deal of mental energy trying to manage or hide their feelings of distress.

Anxiety is also often accompanied by physical symptoms that may include:

  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disturbances

If you frequently feel anxious or believe you may be experiencing some type of anxiety, you might consider the following questions:

  • Do you worry frequently about many different things? Or repeatedly about the same few things?
  • Do you find your mind can easily envision worst-case scenarios (and often does so)?
  • Do you feel like there’s a whirlwind in your mind making it difficult to focus?
  • Do you avoid certain situations or places because you’re worried about panicking or about something bad happening?
  • Do you feel nervous or uneasy on your own?
  • Do you seek frequent reassurance?
  • Do you struggle with sleep?
  • Do you frequently have an upset stomach? Headaches? Lightheadedness? Or other kinds of muscular tension?
  • Do you feel nervous or uncomfortable around others and/or often worry about what others think of you?
  • Do you feel like you miss out on things because you get anxious or because you’re constantly managing your worry?
  • Do you reach for a drink or other substances to feel calmer or more confident?

Challenges Associated with Anxiety Treatment

While a number of treatment approaches have demonstrated a lot of success in the treatment of anxiety, low MHL means people are often impacted by anxiety longer than necessary. According to research conducted in the United States, it takes people an average of 7.9 years to recognize symptoms of social anxiety and 10.1 years to recognize GAD. When I think about the ways anxiety impacts quality of life, I think this many years is far too many.

I think the most important question to ask yourself (without needing to label anything as a “disorder”) is this: Do you wish things were different? If the answer is yes—if you are tired of a certain pattern, whether it is something from the list above or a different area of concern—it is always a worthwhile endeavor to find healthy resources for change.

What’s in the way of treatment, then? Part of the challenge seems to be the beliefs and perception people have about their symptoms, along with the mental health condition in general. One study found people tend to judge anxiety as a weakness. The problem, though, with judging anxiety and other concerns as personality flaws rather than the common mental health issues they are is that doing so can lead to shame and block help-seeking behavior.

There’s the matter of perceived severity and significance. A study in the U.S found participants were able to recognize highly severe social anxiety cases but tended to underscore the issue for milder cases. Participants had difficulty recognizing GAD altogether, regardless of its severity.

People often struggle to perceive their distress as an issue worthy of treatment. This may be partially due to the normalizing that can happen in everyday conversations. While comments like, “Sure, that happens to me too,” and “Yeah, it’s just stress,” can be a great way to help reduce the stigma around experiences, they can also suggest there’s no need to do anything about these experiences.

Increasing Understanding and Reducing Stigma

I’m all for non-pathologizing conversations and comments. However, I do think it’s important to include, in these normalizing comments, a follow-up idea—”AND there are things that can help,” or something along those lines. Something that distresses us may very well be “normal” or experienced by many others. But that doesn’t mean we have to continue to live with it.

Consider the difference between our relationship with physical health (both ours and that of others) and mental health. When someone has the flu, for example, there is no stigma associated with talking about it. We accept that it’s common for people to get the flu, and we offer them our compassion and support. “Did you see the doctor?” “Can I get you anything?” and so on, with no judgments attached. I’d like to see this attitude and understanding spread to issues of mental health.

My hope is for this article to provide the first steps toward understanding. Consider:

  1. Anxiety symptoms are common. You are not “weird” or “crazy” for having anxiety symptoms. In fact, anxiety is a prevalent issue.
  2. Anxiety symptoms are not a character flaw. They are signs of a distressed system.
  3. Anxiety is common in our era, but this doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Beyond seeking support from a qualified therapist or counselor, there are numerous treatments and approaches to self-care you can try, including—but in no way limited to—meditation, yoga, tai chi, and dance. Any of these can help you reduce symptoms and discover more ease and capacity in your life.

I think the most important question to ask yourself (without needing to label anything as a “disorder”) is this: Do you wish things were different? If the answer is yes—if you are tired of a certain pattern, whether it is something from the list above or a different area of concern—it is always a worthwhile endeavor to find healthy resources for change.

There may be a spectrum of intensity for anxiety, but this doesn’t mean milder symptoms should be ignored. If you think you may be affected by anxiety, however mild or severe, I encourage you to reach out to a compassionate mental health professional. Everyone deserves support in improving the quality of their life and continuing to grow and thrive.

References:

  1. Furnham, A., & Lousley, C. (2013). Mental health literacy and the anxiety disorders. Health, 5(03), 521.
  2. Hoffman, D. L., Dukes, E. M., & Wittchen, H. U. (2008). Human and economic burden of generalized anxiety disorder. Depression and anxiety, 25(1), 72-90.
  3. Jorm, A. F. (2011). Mental health literacy: Empowering the community to take action for better mental health. American Psychologist, Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0025957
  4. Loo, P. W., Wong, S., & Furnham, A. (2012). Mental health literacy: A cross‐cultural study from Britain, Hong Kong and Malaysia. AsiaPacific Psychiatry, 4(2), 113-125.
  5. Michigan State University. (2017, April 27). National mental-health survey finds widespread ignorance, stigma. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170427112223.htm
  6. Miller, P. K., Cuthbertson, C., Skidmore, M., & Loveridge, S. (2017). Anxiety. Retrieved from http://msutoday.msu.edu/_/pdf/assets/2017/anxiety-pdf.pdf August 10, 2017
  7. Paulus, D. J., Wadsworth, L. P., & Hayes-Skelton, S. A. (2015). Mental health literacy for anxiety disorders: How perceptions of symptom severity might relate to recognition of psychological distress. Journal of Public Mental Health, 14(2), 94–106. doi:10.1108/JPMH-09-2013-0064
  8. Reavley, N. J., & Jorm, A. F. (2011). Recognition of mental disorders and beliefs about treatment and outcome: Findings from an Australian national survey of mental health literacy and stigma. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45(11), 947-956.
  9. Reavley, N. J., & Jorm, A. F. (2011). Stigmatizing attitudes towards people with mental disorders: Findings from an Australian national survey of mental health literacy and stigma. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45(12), 1086-1093.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nora Sabahat Takieddine, SEP, EMDR Trained, therapist in Dubai, Dubai

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Tina x

    Tina x

    September 15th, 2017 at 11:41 AM

    I have to say that I recognized it in my daughter long before she saw it herself. My one regret is that I didn’t force her to seek help for it sooner. It may have saved her years of health problems if I had just insisted that she go see and talk with someone.

  • Nora Takieddine

    Nora Takieddine

    September 17th, 2017 at 2:59 AM

    Tina, thank you for sharing your experience as a mother. Sometimes it’s harder for the person who’s “in it” to recognize it. I hope things have gotten better for your daughter. And regardless of how yesterday may have been, thankfully there is today. Today = possibility; new conversations, new resources, new discoveries and connection.

  • Loren

    Loren

    September 16th, 2017 at 12:01 PM

    Anxiety can be something that all of us struggle with from time to time, but it must be so exhausting to have it be the one thing that completely controls your life. I think that having to live with that day in and day out would be so horrifying because it alone would take away your ability and even your desire in some ways to live life to the absolute fullest. I would think that you must always feel so weighted down, and unable to see the wonderful things around you because they become so clouded when it is only that pain and anxiety that you can focus on.

  • Nora Takieddine

    Nora Takieddine

    September 17th, 2017 at 7:02 AM

    Loren, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and compassion. I think increased understanding can help raise awareness and encourage the conversations that can support people to access the resources that can help them.

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