When people think about anxiety, they naturally consider that it’s a mental disorder, characterized by excessive and irrational fear and worry. That’s true, but anxiety is highly subjective – what one person with generalized anxiety disorder feels, another may not. Along with physical symptoms that might arise as a result of an anxiety disorder, there are a number of emotional symptoms too. There are also behavioral symptoms of anxiety that could be affecting you or a loved one.
Sarah is a 31-year-old single mother to 10-year-old Jacob. She’s been living with anxiety for a number of years, and is a member of a group at her church that meets once a month. The group, she says, isn’t led by a professional, but is rather “just a bunch of us who kind of came together in recognition that we live with this terrible thing, this anxiety.
“Some of us just have a couple of symptoms, and others, like me, seem to have them all,” she says. “I’m the person with anxiety who worries, who jumps out of her skin, who’s constantly in a state of panic, who always kind of thinks like the sky is falling.
“It’s so odd, I know, because anxiety is itself a pretty basic emotion, but for me, it produces all these other uncomfortable feelings. It makes it really hard to function most days, because if it’s one emotion, it’s another… or on the worst days, it’s a lot of the emotions crashing together all at the same time.”
Following are some of the most commonly reported emotional symptoms of anxiety.
Fear or terror. As one of the most powerful emotions, fear can actually help us – it serves to warn us of incoming danger, giving us a heads up that we might get hurt, either physically or emotionally. Fear can arise in the face of physical threat (like if there’s an incoming car while we’re crossing the road) but can even come up when we’re faced with non-dangerous events, like right before a big presentation at work, minutes before a date, or if we’re moving to a new city or state.
But when one has anxiety, fear can become overwhelming. For those with anxiety, fear just doesn’t seem to want to pass – it hangs on for a long time, causing rapid heartbeat, dizziness, breathlessness or muscle weakness. For those with anxiety, fear is heightened, sometimes over things we logically know couldn’t ever hurt us. Extended fear therefore creates further discomfort, including irritability, insomnia, and lack of self-confidence.
Jumpiness. “I am the most easy-to-scare person on the planet, I think,” shares Sarah. “If you come around the corner and I don’t expect you, I jump. Some people find it funny, but I can get so startled I start crying.”
Excessive jumpiness is actually quite a common symptom of anxiety. It can come and go, or it can be a persistent symptom. It may happen before other symptoms, or it might escalate after experiencing any number of other symptoms. This is thanks to an active stress response that’s caused by anxiety (when we’re persistently stressed, our nervous system goes into overdrive, causing this startle-easily symptom).
Uneasiness. When one is anxious, one could just feel as if something is wrong, all the time, without being to pinpoint what it is that could be wrong.
“Sometimes I’ll just be sitting there, and I’m actually okay,” says Sarah. “Then I start thinking, ‘Oh God. Hang on. Why do I feel okay? What am I missing? Something has to be happening and I’m just noticing it.’ It’s almost like my ‘normal’ state is unease, and being okay is what makes me uncomfortable.”
Panic. If you have anxiety, you may experience panic too – an out-of-the-blue attack that occurs without warning. You might feel this intense wave of fear come over you, and you can’t move, you can’t breathe, and you feel like you’re spiraling out of control.
“I have panic attacks pretty regularly, but they don’t get any easier,” says Sarah. “They usually hit me pretty hard and fast, and they stick around for about half an hour, which feels like an eternity, really.
“My first panic attack was when I thought I got stuck in an elevator. The elevator wasn’t moving, and I was on the 6th floor, and I thought, oh my God, this is far enough up that I could still die if the thing goes crashing down.
“I felt like I was spinning. My head hurt, I wanted to throw up, and I don’t know how my knuckles didn’t pop out of my skin I was gripping the bar so hard.
“It turns out I just didn’t press the floor I wanted to go to, so the elevator just didn’t move. The feeling passed, obviously, but I’ll never forget that feeling. Every time I have a panic attack that’s what it still feels like, like I’m trapped in an elevator and it’s going to go crashing and I’m going to die.”
Feeling overwhelmed. The feeling of being overwhelmed, for anyone, is, well, overwhelming. For someone with anxiety, feeling overwhelmed can be absolutely, terrifyingly all-consuming.
When a person’s stressors get too much too bear or to manage, that’s when they become overwhelmed. Feeling this way can stop a person from functioning well or properly (if at all). This feeling causes cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) to course through the body, leaving a person unstable, unwell, or frighteningly distressed. It’s an uncomfortable, seemingly uncontrollable state, which gives way to even worse feelings, including doubt, irritability, and worry.
“I feel this way a lot,” says Sarah. “My support system, including my mom, my best friend, my co-workers – they tell me I’m doing a great job. But I look at myself and I think, ‘I’m a single mom to a little boy. I work so much that I don’t get to make a healthy dinner most nights of the week. I’m taking an online course to further my education but I usually don’t get on the computer until 11, close to midnight, because I want to be with Jacob. I want to be in a relationship but I don’t have time.
“Maybe for other people, life is just life, but for me, with anxiety, it just sometimes feels like it’s way too much.”
Read about the differences between stress and anxiety.
Anticipating the worst. Psychology Today has a term for this: anticipatory anxiety. It’s when people think, “What if I don’t have enough money at the end of the month? What if the plane crashes? What if I get sick?”
Experts explain that these kinds of unconscious fears impact the fear centers of the brain and can actually have the power to disrupt actual plans you may have. In the beginning, these thoughts may be conscious, but for those with anxiety, they may come with such regularity that they become ingrained in the subconscious too.
“I definitely do this,” admits Sarah. “I play the what-if game all the time. I’m working harder to get to ‘What if it works out? What if I’m happy? What if I recover from anxiety?’ but it’s a challenge.”
So you have emotional symptoms of anxiety. What can you do?
Anxiety carries with it negative projection about unknown outcomes, and for those who have suffered with anxiety for a long time, this way of thinking can be hard to abolish. But there are things you can do to interrupt those emotions.
You can do your best to replace your fear or other negative emotion with a positive thought. You can do your best to shift your focus to something else (for example, if you’re worried about money and bills, shift your focus to your puppy wagging his tail beside you, or listen to a song you love). You can stop giving your anxiety so much attention by letting go of the need to analyze it or judging it – instead, give in to it and just let yourself feel it without justifying it.
Learn about what physical exercise can do for your anxiety.
Not ready to schedule a consultation? Sign up for our newsletter to get wellness tips, discounts, and so much more.