Health Agenda

Mental Health

Symptoms of anxiety

What anxiety looks and feels like is different for everyone. Here are some of the more common symptoms of anxiety and how to lessen their impact.

Sweating. Shallow breathing. Nausea and panic.

Anxiety can make us feel many different things – few of them good.

It affects 1 in 4 Australians, but very few people seek help for anxiety when it starts. In fact, just 27% of people with anxiety look for help in the first year of symptoms, and it takes the average person more than 8 years to ask for help.

With so many successful ways to treat and manage anxiety and lessen symptoms when they happen, there’s no reason to suffer in silence.

Here are the common symptoms and signs of anxiety and how to deal with them.

What is anxiety and why do we get it?

Anxiety is your body’s way of keeping you safe and we actually need it in small doses – if you weren’t worried about how to cross the road safely, you’d wander into busy traffic.

It becomes problematic when anxious feelings are very intense and don’t go away when a perceived ‘threat’ is gone.

Factors like genetics, personality type, illness and trauma can all cause anxiety. Big life events, such as moving home or having a baby, can also cause anxiety, as can chronic health conditions and addiction.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The signs and symptoms of anxiety can present themselves in 3 ways:

  1. Physically.

  2. Psychologically.

  3. Behaviourally.

Symptoms can develop slowly over time, which means they’re often hard to notice at first. Here’s what to look out for:

1. Physical symptoms of anxiety checklist

 Panic attacks (often characterised by a pounding heart, feeling like you can’t breathe, feeling as though you’re ‘losing your mind’).
 Sweating.
 Pins and needles in arms or hands.
 Hot and cold flushes.
 Shallow or laboured breathing.
 Churning stomach or stomach-ache.
 Problems concentrating.
 Excessive thirst.
 Dizziness or feeling light-headed.
 Problems going to sleep or waking up frequently.
 Tightening of the chest.
 Feeling restless or wound up.
 Feeling as though you might vomit.
 Feeling detached from your body.
 Tense muscles.
 Finding it hard to concentrate.

Why not keep a copy of this checklist on your phone? Tick off the symptoms you experience as they occur. It might help you describe how you feel to a GP or support person if you decide to ask for support.

(Be aware that many of these symptoms can also be signs of other medical conditions, so you should see your GP if you’re experiencing any of them.)

2. Psychological symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety can affect how you think, making it hard to rationalise situations or put things into perspective. Psychological symptoms can include excessively worrying or fearing that you can’t control things, thinking obsessively about something, and catastrophising i.e. always thinking the very worst will happen in any situation.

3. Behavioural symptoms of anxiety

Avoiding or dreading situations so much that they impact how you live can be a sign of anxiety. This could include things you once enjoyed, like social events, work or school. Other behavioural symptoms of anxiety could also be not wanting to get out of bed, and refusing to leave your home.

Taking control of anxiety symptoms

It’s possible to manage mild anxiety by learning some coping strategies. Here are some tips that will help:

Exercising
Regular exercise can boost the brain’s levels of serotonin, the chemical that regulates mood, sleep and appetite. Exercise can also help you sleep better, increase your energy levels, and act as a distraction – all factors that can help to reduce anxiety.

Tip: Find an exercise you enjoy. It could be a brisk walk with a friend, playing for a netball team or dancing around the kitchen to your favourite music. Anything that gets you moving is exercise.

Doing yoga
Along with meditation, yoga has been found to balance the body’s stress response systems, and it has proved successful at helping many people deal with anxiety.

Tip: If you can’t find a local class that suits your schedule, explore the many resources online. Simply Google ‘online yoga’, or check out some live-streamed classes on ClassPass.

Understanding your anxiety
Keeping a diary of when your anxiety rears its head, or when your self-talk is very negative, plus what makes you feel better, can help you plan how to proactively manage your feelings.

Tip: Date your anxiety episodes and look at what else is going on at that time, i.e. does your anxiety feel worse on a Sunday night, in anticipation of going to school or work on Monday? Consider joining a support group or online community to share experiences.

Using breathing or relaxation techniques
Anxiety can often cause an increased heart rate, quicker breathing, and a surge of adrenaline. De-arousal techniques aim to reduce tension, control your breathing and have a general calming effect on the body and mind.

Tip: Some good techniques include breathing control – slow your breathing down by counting to 3 as you breathe in, then out, several times; and progressive muscle relaxation – close your eyes and tense each muscle group in your body for 3 seconds, then release; this will help reduce muscle tension and focus your breath.

Getting help with anxiety

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologist, psychiatrist and other allied health professionals.

You can also access a range of online courses through THIS WAY UP⁺, a not-for-profit initiative developed by experienced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, to help you take control of your mental wellbeing. Clinically proven, the courses understand and improve mental challenges like stress, insomnia, worry, anxiety and depression.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find more mental health help:

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published May 2021

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How to help an anxious child

Every child feels scared or stressed sometimes. Here’s how parents can help children to feel less anxious.

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