By CAROLYN DE LORENZO
While pretty much everyone gets stressed out, not everyone has an anxiety disorder — though it can be easy to confuse the two. Even in an era that’s (comparatively) enlightened about mental health conditions, stigma can still mean that some people don’t get help when they need it. If you’re feeling chronically worried, it’s important to find out whether your feelings are stress-induced, or if you are dealing with a mental health condition. No matter what the reasons are, it’s critical that you don’t minimize your distress. To that end, it can be helpful to know the signs that your stress is actually a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
“It’s very easy to get the symptoms of stress and anxiety confused, as the symptoms closely overlap, and include uneasiness, tension, high blood pressure, headaches, and loss of sleep,” Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, Vice President of Clinical Outreach for Newport Academy, tells Bustle by email.
If you’re wondering if you might have an anxiety disorder, Wilson notes that, though the symptoms of stress and anxiety are similar, anxiety symptoms tend to persist over time — even after a trigger, or stressful event, is over.
“Generally, stress is a reaction to pressure or a threat, meaning a response to an external cause, such as a tight deadline at work or having an argument with a friend, and typically subsides once the situation has been resolved,” Wilson says. “In contrast, anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent feelings of uneasiness, fear, worry, or unease that do not usually end after a concern has passed. Ultimately, anxiety disorders can cause disruption in everyday life and routines.”
While stress can be a response to a perceived threatening situation, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety is defined as an upsetting (and sometimes debilitating) reaction to that stress. Both chronic stress and anxiety can have serious consequences for your health, but how they’re treated medically can differ in significant ways. Chronic stress can also lead to full-blown anxiety disorder if left untreated, Wilson says.
“Typically, a rule of thumb for recognizing a generalized anxiety disorder is feeling excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for at least six months. Other symptoms include feeling easily fatigued, difficulty controlling worry, feeling on edge all the time, and experiencing ongoing sleep disruption,” explains Wilson.
In order to better grasp what you might be dealing with if you’re feeling anxious on an ongoing basis, here are nine ways to tell if your stress is pointing to an anxiety disorder, and how to get the best help possible for your mental health.
1You Feel Chronically Cranky
Many people with anxiety disorders experience a lot of irritability when they feel anxious, Erica Julson wrote for Healthline. In fact, one study found that over 90 percent of study participants with generalized anxiety disorder reported irritability when their anxiety levels were high.
While stress can make anyone irritable, someone with anxiety has symptoms that persist over time, and that don’t subside even though the stressful event has passed.
2You Experience Panic Attacks
Panic attacks, or overwhelming feelings of danger or doom, are common in people with anxiety disorders, Anxiety.org says. Panic attacks can be debilitating, and if they happen frequently or chronically — especially if no known triggers are present — it can mean that you have an anxiety disorder. If you’ve been stressed out a lot lately, and you start having panic attacks, that’s an indication that your stress might be affecting your mental health.
3You Feel Pressure Or Tightness In Your Chest & Throat
Chest pain is a common symptom of anxiety and panic attacks, according to ADAA. And some research suggests that as many as one out of four people seeking treatment for chest pain are actually experiencing some form of anxiety or panic disorder.
While chest pain can happen in response to a stressful event, someone with anxiety may experience it as part of an ongoing cluster of symptoms that persist for six months or more, according to Wilson.
4You Feel Worn Out & Exhausted …
Feeling exhausted is a common symptom of anxiety, Bustle writer Carolyn Steber previously wrote. Managing the symptoms of panic and anxiety on an ongoing basis can be both mentally and physically draining, and you might feel worn out if you’re anxiety symptoms have been on blast lately. While stress can be tiring, someone with anxiety may manage ongoing or extreme fatigue as a result of persistent symptoms that aren’t subsiding.
5… But You Can’t Fall Or Stay Asleep
Sleep problems and anxiety symptoms can co-exist in a frustrating feedback loop. While racing thoughts, fears, and tension can throw a wrench in your nighttime sleep schedule, chronic sleep disorders can also contribute to anxiety, the National Sleep Foundation says.
While stress can negatively impact sleep, someone without an anxiety disorder will resume healthy sleeping patterns once the stressful event has passed, Wilson says. For a person managing anxiety, however, sleep disruptions can become chronic, and persist over months or years.
6You Experience Hyperventilation Or Breathing Problems
Shallow breathing and hyperventilation are common in anxiety disorders, Katharina Star, PhD, wrote for Verywell Mind. Rachael Rifkin for Headspace noted that shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response. Additionally, the fight or flight response can also contribute to hyperventilation and restricted breathing. If you’re experiencing repetitive hyperventilation or breathing issues that can’t be medically explained otherwise, you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
7You Can’t Concentrate
Brain fog and having trouble concentrating are common signs of anxiety disorders, Wilson says. If your anxious feelings are not resolving on their own over a period of time, and you’re noticing that you can’t concentrate very well on a regular basis, there’s a good chance that anxiety might be a contributing factor.
8You Basically Worry *A Lot*
If your stress symptoms or anxious feelings are happening a lot, and they persist for six months or more, you might be dealing with generalized anxiety disorder, Wilson says. Feeling worried without relief, especially if you’re not feeling better after a stressful situation has resolved, can mean that professional support might be helpful for addressing your mental health.
If chronic stress is negatively impacting your daily life, talk to your doctor about ways to manage stress and anxiety, Wilson says. Your doctor might refer you to a mental health professional who can help you work through your stress and anxiety, Wilson says. Your therapist may also teach you applied relaxation techniques to help you manage your symptoms.
Experiential therapy programs such as yoga, equine-assisted therapy, culinary arts therapy, art therapy, music therapy, adventure therapy, among others can help identify triggers of anxiety and help you cope with somatic responses, notes Wilson. When it comes to treatment for anxiety, you’ve got a lot of options, so it might help to reach out to your doctor and discuss the best approach for you.