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Signs and symptoms of anxiety

The signs and symptoms of anxiety affect your body, your mind and your actions.

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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is part of being human. Everyone experiences it. We describe anxiety as feeling nervous, worried, uneasy, panicky, and fearful about what might happen. Anxiety can happen when we’re about to give a speech at a wedding or at work, while driving a car, going to meet with our child’s teacher, or looking down from the top of a skyscraper. It can also occur when we worry about climate change, whether our children will have jobs when they grow up, or if someone could hurt us or someone we love.

Anxiety is related to fear. Fear is a natural response to something that is, or seems to be, a threat to our physical safety. To keep us safe, our bodies and brains are designed to respond with fear to physical threats. However, when we experience anxiety, our body responds to activities that are not life-threatening as if they are physical threats. This response leads to the signs and symptoms listed below.

Your body

Physical signs and symptoms of anxiety

  • heart pumping fast and hard
  • breathing fast or feeling short of breath
  • feeling dry in the mouth
  • sweating
  • feeling sick in the stomach
  • feeling like you need to go to the toilet
  • shaking or trembling
  • getting head pain – a ‘tension’ headache.
Mature woman sweating anxiety

Your mind

Mental and emotional signs and symptoms of anxiety

  • difficulty concentrating
  • you can’t stop thinking about things you fear
  • you start thinking that something bad might happen
  • you think you would like to run away – fast!

Your actions

What you do in response to anxiety

  • you run away from, or leave, the situation
  • you avoid the situation.
Panic attack woman with hands over face public place

“I get the palpitations first and as soon as I sense those, I notice my breathing gets faster. I hate this feeling. Then my palms are sweaty and I think ‘I can’t do this – I don’t want to do this’. But I push myself and I walk out on stage and welcome the new parents to the school. I keep thinking ‘please don’t stuff it up, please let them think you are going to be a good teacher to their children.’ And then it is all over and I can calm down again, until next year!”

Jan, aged 52, year 7 teacher.

“You would think I was about to commit some crime the way I carry on when I am late. I hate being late. As the clock gets close to the time to start work, I start to feel it. I’m going to be late. My heart starts racing, ‘Why didn’t I get up earlier, I am an idiot’, then I can feel it in my stomach and I start to feel sick. ‘What if the boss notices and he calls me in and says that I am fired?’ I find myself predicting all these horrible things that could happen and then I just want to turn around, go home and call in sick. It’s crazy, particularly because I am hardly ever late!”

Jane, aged 30, personal assistant.

What to do if you think you have anxiety

You can have the signs and symptoms of anxiety without having an anxiety disorder.

However, when anxiety disrupts or interferes with your daily life and you feel fearful most or all the time, then you need to do something about it.

One in three women will experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. The good news is, anxiety can be managed.

The sections below may help you to do something about anxiety:

  1. ways we can nurture ourselves;
  2. e-programs for managing anxiety;
  3. how to seek help from a health professional.

Types of anxiety disorders

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, but some of the major ones include:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder, which is constant worrying and fear about many different things that exceeds the actual level of the threat to your safety.
  • Panic disorder, which is sudden and intense feelings of fear resulting in a panic attack (ie racing heart, breathing fast, sweating, thinking you are going to die).
  • Phobia, which is an intense fear of a situation or thing which may cause a panic attack and/or trying to avoid that situation or thing. There are many different kinds of phobias (eg, fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of flying).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which involves repeating thoughts and behaviours over and over again to reduce feelings of anxiety. Examples include counting things and excessive handwashing.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur after experiencing a frightening event in which it felt like your life was threatened, whether or not you were hurt. The event may be either watching or experiencing an accident, abuse, physical harm, or a disaster.
Pensive woman in front of window

“I can’t fly. I will not walk through those plane doors. The feelings of panic are so intense when I even think of taking a holiday somewhere far away, I will not do it. What if I have a panic attack on the plane? I might die and no one will be able to help me and I won’t be able to get out.”

Michelle, aged 38.

“It has got to the stage that I can’t even drive to the shops. I am so frightened that something bad will happen. For every bump I think I have hit something. I turn the car around and go back and check and then start off again. I might get five metres down the road and think I hear something and then I have to stop and check again. Once I have checked, I calm down and tell myself it is okay. I start driving and the panic just rises. Imagine if I hit someone, or a little animal. I would rather not drive.”

Robyn, aged 54.

If you would like more information about the different kinds of anxiety disorders, please go to:

Australian Psychological Society

Beyondblue

Headspace

Last updated: 22 March 2020 | Last reviewed: 29 February 2020

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