We all have anxiety from time to time. It's a normal human reaction that serves us well against an impending attack, triggering a host of biological responses that temporarily boost our immune system, suppress pain and release a surge of energy. In simple terms, anxiety is vital to survival.

But when anxiety becomes persistent, unprovoked and interferes with daily life, it may signal a bigger problem. The chemical changes released by stress are intended to be immediate and short-lived; without the chance to recede to normal levels, they wreak havoc on the body and mind. Countless studies have shown an association between chronic stress and damage to all the major systems in the body; heart disease, hypertension and even cancer have all been linked. Mental health is also compromised as sufferers struggle with personal relationships, job performance and emotional instability.

Signs of a Bigger Problem

While not always clear, there are certain warning signs that anxiety is becoming ongoing and merits further attention. Although anxiety disorders are categorized in various types, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and panic disorder, they often share many characteristics.

A typical symptom of anxiety includes persistent worrying and ruminating, often about a problem that is unlikely to occur. People who are afraid of getting into a car accident or fear becoming sick when such dangers are not likely to occur to them more than anyone else, might be suffering from excessive stress. For example, if their unprovoked fears influence them not to leave home, the anxiety has impeded their daily functioning and is a detriment to their quality of life.

Another frequent symptom of anxiety involves sleeping problems such as difficulty falling and staying asleep, as well as nightmares. Both adults and children may be affected, resulting often in poor school and job performance, difficulty concentrating, inability to finish tasks, and drug and alcohol abuse. Such results further compound the initial anxiety, while extending the excessive worrying.

People struggling with anxiety may also experience weight changes. Fluctuation in appetite are evident in many who cannot focus on their nutrition when consumed by worries.

Biological manifestations of anxiety are common. For example, someone suffering a panic attack is likely to have a pounding heart, rapid breathing and excessive sweating. It is not uncommon to see patients in the midst of an attack rushed to the emergency department with an alleged heart attack. The physiological reaction is often severe, acute and downright terrifying.

Another behavior associated with anxiety involves mood changes and social isolation. Those with PTSD often avoid people and places that remind them of the trauma that triggered their anxiety disorder. They may experience angry outbursts in one moment and detachment from others in the next. Those suffering from social anxiety disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder also avoid interaction with others, despite the personal and professional damage the avoidance might lead to. They are simply too intimidated, troubled, or anxious to participate in potentially meaningful and engaging events.

Ultimately, seeking professional help is advised if anxiety becomes pervasive and debilitating.

Recommended For You

Tony Attwood, Ph.D.
Katherine J. Gold, M.D., M.S.W., M.S.
Liz Matheis, Ph.D.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW


Date of original publication:

Updated: September 12, 2019