What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Anxiety is a feeling of constant unease that can make you unable to relax or enjoy everyday life. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. For some people, anxiety is a short-lived response to a stressful situation, such as public speaking or taking an exam. For others, anxiety is more long-lasting and can interfere with daily activities.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting an estimated 40 million adults age 18 and older, or roughly 19 percent of the population. If left untreated, anxiety can lead to severe impairment, depression, and an increased risk of self-harm or suicide. And despite being highly treatable, only about 37 percent of anxiety patients seek treatment.

What Causes Anxiety?

There is no single cause of anxiety. Rather, it’s caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental factors. To begin with, people who have a family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders are more likely to develop anxiety.

Brain structure and chemistry may also play a role in anxiety. Some research suggests that an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters, combined with structural changes in the brain due to external stressors, could play a role in the development of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders.

Stressful life experiences or traumatic events, such as being the victim of a crime or witnessing a natural disaster, can cause anxiety. Other life changes, such as starting a new job, becoming a parent, or divorce, can also be stressful and lead to overwhelming fear and anxiety.

How to Know You Have Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in many different ways. For some people, it can be a constant low-level feeling of unease. For others, it can be more sporadic but much more intense. Anxiety can cause negative thinking patterns that can become all-consuming. People with anxiety may ruminate on worst-case scenarios or catastrophize minor problems.

It can feel like you’re constantly on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It can be hard to concentrate or relax, and you might even avoid certain situations or activities because they make you anxious. Below are some of the most common signs and symptoms that you may have anxiety:

Physical symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach upset/nausea
  • Sweating
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Muscle tension or tightness
  • Headaches
  • Panic attacks

Mental symptoms:

  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability

Emotional symptoms: 

  • Feeling tense or nervous 
  • Feeling down or hopeless
  • Feelings of restlessness or nervousness
  • Feeling “keyed up” or on edge
  • Excessive worry or fear

These symptoms can range from mildly unpleasant to debilitating. They can also come and go depending on the situation. If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms regularly, it might signify that you need professional help.

The Bottom Line

We all feel overwhelmed from time to time and having occasional anxious thoughts and feelings is a normal part of life. It only becomes a problem when these anxious feelings and thoughts become so constant and intense that they get in the way of your daily life.

If you suspect you have anxiety, you should talk to a doctor or mental health expert as soon as possible. With proper diagnosis and treatment, most people with anxiety disorders can manage their symptoms and live productive lives.

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