Worried all the time lately? When is it signs of anxiety, and when is it more than just anxiety and an anxiety disorder?
Key facts about anxiety and mental health
It’s important to understand that mental health is not an exact science. Mental health ‘disorders’ are not illnesses you can see under a microscope. They are general terms created by mental health professionals to help describe groups of people with similar symptoms.
So there is often crossover when diagnosing mental health issues. For example, between anxiety and stress, and between anxiety and anxiety disorders.
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Anxiety and stress
With stress, we know what it is we are upset about. It’s just that we are very overwhelmed and feel unable to cope. We feel frustrated, and can be angry or sad.
‘Everyday anxiety’ is often really a form of stress. Something has happened in life that has us worried all the time. This might be losing our job, a big presentation, or a life change.
Anxiety, however, is more vague in its cause. We suddenly feel scared about our future, and our thoughts become increasingly illogic. If we think what we think we are anxious about, we then just feel anxious about something else.
Once we are in a state of anxiety, we can overreact to everything. Something small, like a stranger looking at us funny on a train, can leave us feeling afraid.
[For more on this front, go to our article on ‘Stress vs Anxiety – What is the Difference?‘].
When stress becomes anxiety
Stress can trigger anxiety. We start off upset about something in particular, but then we find we are worried about everything, and not just frustrated but fearful.
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This can happen if we are faced with too many stressors at once. For example, if we lose a loved one and have a financial crisis at the same time.
But in general, this happens because we were already prone to anxiety.
Signs of anxiety and anxiety disorder
The symptoms of anxiety and anxiety disorder are the same. The difference is in how long you experience the symptoms, and in their severity. And many of these symptoms also are seen in cases of severe stress.
Anxiety symptoms can be divided into categories: mental symptoms, emotional symptoms, and physical symptoms.
Mental symptoms can include things like:
- obsessive and increasingly illogic thinking
- a feeling like your mind is on overdrive, troubleshooting everything
- always thinking of the future and how you can control it
- negative thinking: exaggerated, black and white, doom and gloom.
Emotional symptoms can include things like:
- mood swings, such as sadness and anger
- feeling on edge all the time
- overreacting to things.
Physical signs of anxiety can include things like:
For more about anxiety symptoms, read our ‘Guide to Generalised Anxiety and Panic Disorders‘.
The roots of anxiety and anxiety disorder
Again, anxiety can happen if the stress in your present day life becomes so out of control it’s beyond the realm of human coping.
And anxiety can be a symptom of PTSD triggered by a devastating experience. This includes things like your house burning down, watching someone you love die, being the victim of crime, living through natural disaster or terrorism, etc.
But in most cases, anxiety doesn’t just descend out of nowhere. It tends to be a mix of environmental and genetic factors that leave us anxious adults.
Childhood causes for anxiety and anxiety disorder
Childhood is a key factor behind most cases of anxiety. It could be that a childhood trauma left you believing the world is a dangerous place and living with complex PTSD, with anxiety as a key symptom. Or you might have experienced unstable environments as a child, like poverty, or a sick parent.
Sometimes it’s the way we were parented that left us with an anxious personality. It could be that you had an anxious parent and learned to respond to stress by overthinking.
We might not have received enough ‘attachment’, meaning there was not an adult we could trust to be a safe, loving and reliable go-to. We end up with ‘anxious attachment disorder’, meaning relationships cause us great stress.
Finally, some people do seem to be born more prone to anxiety than others. We can have a sensitive personality. And some research shows anxiety might be genetic.
Anxiety or signs of anxiety disorder?
So when does anxiety become a disorder? When anxiety is controlling your life, and has been doing so for at least a few months.
Most people whose anxiety is based on unresolved childhood issues will have generalised anxiety disorder. Life will be affected on a daily basis by anxiety. Decision making is driven by trying to avoid feelings of fear.
If we have done therapy for our anxiety, however, and know how to control it when it gets triggered? Then we can start to experience anxiety in a way that is no longer a disorder as it is not controlling us. We are controlling our anxiety.
The different types of anxiety disorder
Anxiety disorder can manifest differently for different people. There are many types of anxiety disorder, with the most common ones being:
Generalised anxiety disorder: you are anxious all the time, you make decisions based around your anxious thoughts and fear, and it’s been going on for several months or a lot longer.
Social anxiety disorder: Your anxiety triggers when you have to interact with others. The more anxious you are, the less you go out of the house.
Obsessive compulsive disorder: Your anxiety leads you to compulsions and repeat behaviours.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): this is really a trauma disorder, where you have experienced one or several overwhelming experiences. But anxiety is a main symptom.
When is it time to seek help?
Life throws curve balls. So we all at some point feel overwhelmed and anxious. But a good rule of thumb is that if your stress and anxiety has been going on for two months or more, and you feel it is negatively affecting your daily life and ability to cope? It’s time to seek support.
Ready to put an end to a life led by anxiety? We connect to London’s top therapists in central locations. Not in London or the UK? Find UK-wide therapists on our booking site, or an online therapist you can talk to from anywhere.
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