Learning to spot the signs of anxiety

Anxiety is the human response to stress. It acts as a type of excessive fear, worry or concern about a real or perceived threat, which activates our ‘fight and flight response’ in brain and the autonomic nervous system. As a result we feel a number of distressing symptoms in our bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts.

For example, we may feel a tightening around the chest and a sense of breathlessness. We might become confused, irritable and fearful, while trying to avoid social situations which make us feel awkward and uncomfortable in the company of others. Or we might have nervous thoughts racing around our mind, convincing us that some catastrophe is about to befall us and our loved ones.

Typically, anxiety causes us to experience a great deal more emotional intensity and act in overly dramatic ways than the situation seems to warrant. For example, temporary separation from a loved one might cause so much anxiety that the person experiences a panic attack. The worst type of anxiety is often a response to ‘uncertainty’, where the person feels the world and those around him/her are completely out of control. This may cause someone to act out with confused, angry and erratic behaviour.

Anxiety can be found on a spectrum of disorders ranging from generalised anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, compulsive behaviours, panic attacks, eating disorders and post traumatic stress disorder. There may be a number of dramatic responses to anxiety, which range in intensity: beginning with excitement and low levels of stress, moving to high stress, anxiety, fear, panic and terror. Very often, people who suffer from excessive anxiety seem unable to regulate their feelings and thoughts, as they move very quickly from stress to panic and lose control. They often respond inappropriately to the level of threat as well, which can sometimes be minimal; or because they perceive a potential threat way off in the future, as if it were actually happening now.

Anxiety, is however, normal. It is part of our evolutionary instinct to survive when threatened by danger. It can help motivate us to act, to protect ourselves from danger, to solve problems in a crisis, or predict outcomes and meet our goals. The ‘stress response’ also helps us to meet daily challenges by providing us with hormones, such as adrenalin that keep us roused and alert; providing us the stimulus to predict problems and make decisions, to compete at work or meet any necessary deadlines.

However, if we have experienced too much anxiety in our childhood, due to severe abuse, neglect or overly anxious parents, it can make us act in unpredictable ways and make us prone to mood swings. Or if we have experienced a significant trauma in our lives, such as a violent assault or near fatal accident it can leave us with a legacy of hyperarousal (feeling on edge) which triggers our ‘fight and flight response’ in the brain or our autonomic nervous system.

This in itself can lead to psychological stress where the brain enters a hyper-vigilant state. Bodily sensations are aroused and our thoughts start racing as we begin to worry disproportionately about a wide range of problems. We may experience high levels of paranoia and panic, as anxiety spirals out of control and feeds on itself. This triggers the nervous system over and over again until we become completely overwhelmed.

Emotions which cause stress and trigger the sympathetic nervous system when they become too intense are: anger, fear, grief, frustration and rage. All of these emotions are normal and can be expressed without harming ourselves or others, but not if they have built up inside us or become explosive. It is much better to address the symptoms earlier with reflective practice and activities that alleviate or bring relief to the physiological and psychological symptoms.

For example, being mindful of relaxation exercises, focused breathing, meditation, or regular exercise. There may also be a need to pay closer attention to our body’s sensations, long before anxiety sets in. Under normal conditions the stress response is the body’s way of protecting us from harm. When it is fit for purpose and functions well, low levels of anxiety can help us remain focused, energetic and alert to emergencies, so it can save our lives - giving us extra confidence to defend ourselves, or spurring us to hit the brakes in an accident.

Noticing the signs of anxiety early and observing them in intimate detail is the first part of understanding how the ‘fight and flight response’ works in our body and brain. Self-awareness is a vital step in learning to tolerate anxiety and bring it under control or better still, learning to regulate its intensity. 

Try to use a regular body scan to pick up on the physiological symptoms (bodily sensations). Be more aware of your emotional state, and monitor your feelings. Track your anxious thoughts and beliefs, in order to discern whether they are disproportionate to the situation. And make a note of erratic behaviours or acting out. You could keep a journal to do this or even a chart or table. You can even download Apps or make a verbal note of these into the voice recorder on your phone. Once you learn them, you can start to devise the techniques and actions for relieving the symptoms of anxiety.

The noticeable signs of stress and anxiety are explored below.

Bodily sensations:

  • Chest pain, heart palpitations.
  • Breathlessness or hyperventilation.
  • Excessive perspiration or hot flushes.
  • A building sense of nausea or dizziness.
  • Frequent colds, illnesses or muscle complaints.
  • Stomach pains, acid reflux, gastroenteritis or diarrhoea.
  • High degree of muscle tension, back and shoulder pain, or nervous headaches.

Emotional states:

  • Feelings of distress or fear.
  • Feelings of social awkwardness.
  • Agitation and an inability to relax.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by intense emotion.
  • Outbursts of irritability anger or mood swings.
  • Sense of loneliness or isolation and withdrawal.

Thoughts and beliefs:

  • Continuous negative outlook.
  • Imagining 'worst case scenarios'.
  • Constant or disproportionate worrying.
  • Paranoia, anxiousness or racing thoughts.
  • Poor judgment, a lack of clarity or focus.
  • Lack of precision or inability to think straight.
  • Memory loss, poor recall, or inability to reflect on things.

Reflex behaviours:

  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax.
  • Nervous habits or tics (e.g. nail biting, pacing).
  • Pacing up and down, tapping fingers and/or feet.
  • Erratic sleeping patterns, insomnia and fitful sleep.
  • Avoiding situations, isolating yourself or withdrawal.
  • Procrastinating, not taking decisions or neglecting responsibilities.

These are the usual signs of anxiety that people experience or display in a crisis. Once you have learned the repertoire of sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviours that accompany anxiety you can learn to tolerate anxiety and respond to it with self-awareness different techniques to help you relieve the symptoms, which I will write about in my next article.

Counselling for anxiety may also be a good way of learning how to cope and using mindfulnesstechniques.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & TW1
Written by Gregori Savva, Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree
Twickenham TW2 & TW1

Welcome to my profile. I'm Greg. Enduring Mind Counselling Twickenham I believe in a compassionate, open-minded approach to counselling. Helping you make sense of difficult thoughts and emotions, as you learn to overcome anxiety, anger, depression and trauma. I also work with couples counselling to...

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