Please note: the following article is not intended to be medical advice.
With all the lifestyle changes and fluctuations in our inner and outer environment post-Covid, anxiety as a mental health challenge has become widespread around the world. It is among the world’s top 7 Common Mental Disorders and the 6th leading cause of disability around the globe. However, identifying anxiety can be tricky. Therefore, in this article, we will walk you through the subtle signs and symptoms of anxiety.
According to a report published by The Lancet Psychiatry in 2017, 197.3 million people were suffering from mental illness in India. Of them, 44.9 million were diagnosed with anxiety disorder. It was also observed that anxiety disorder was significantly higher in females than males.
Why is anxiety difficult to spot?
Anxiety can sometimes overlap with fear, and this makes it hard to distinguish between the two. However, one major difference between fear and anxiety is that anxiety is caused by anticipation or worry about a future outcome. It is mostly future-oriented. Fear, on the other hand, involves a real threat or danger in the present situation. Anxiety could be vague and many a time could also be a ‘false alarm’. It is, therefore, very important to constantly keep exploring the validity of one’s own feelings.
Anxiety symptoms and the evolution of the human nervous system
Our body’s nervous system is responsible for our normal functioning. Whenever we face anxiety, it interferes with our biological functioning and starts showcasing a set of emotional and physiological responses. These responses may include racing heartbeats, sweating, feeling restless or jittery, not being able to concentrate, frequent urination, upset stomach, or feeling a burst of energy. Our body’s physiological response is its way of telling us to pay attention to it.
Evolutionarily, these symptoms of anxiety were useful back in the day when human beings were dependent on hunting for their protection and survival. But as human beings evolved, so did their problems. Life-and-death situations became rarer. That is why some of the symptoms that anxiety showcases seem more irrelevant now. The nervous system gets hyper-activated after facing anxiety. To bring it back to the baseline, we need to engage our body and mind in helpful coping mechanisms.
Signs of anxiety you should look out for
1. Digestive issues
Our body and mind are interconnected and both influence each other. For example, if you have a bad stomach or are feeling nauseous and restless, it could very well be a symptom of anxiety. The body’s gastrointestinal tract is very sensitive to our emotional environment as well. A lot of students report upset stomachs before an important exam/ presentation. Along with other relevant reasons, anxiety could also be one of the main root causes for the same.
When we feel anxious, our body releases a hormone called cortisol which is a stress hormone. It leads to an extra production of stomach acid. It can lead to hyper-acidity. This hyper-acidity then in turn can cause nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting.
Chronic stress and anxiety have also been found to be associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS is an unpleasant condition in which an individual goes through abdominal pain, cramps, frequent gastrointestinal problems, vomiting, and hyper-acidity.
A study conducted by Fabiane Klem and colleagues in 2017 reported that individuals, with psychological distress, are more at risk for developing IBS.
2. Tendency to avoid/delay and/or procrastinate
One of the lesser identified by-products of anxiety is a tendency to avoid the anxious stimulus because you wish to escape its consequences. The anxiety causes so much distress and discomfort that choosing a “flight” mode seems like a more convenient option. Procrastination also often becomes the individual’s go-to option because delaying the event results in temporary relief.
3. Restlessness and fidgety behaviour
When we face anxiety, we typically look out for things that we can have control over. There could be a sudden burst of energy that our body wants to release. Tapping our feet or hands constantly, moving in the chair while sitting, and constantly pacing around are all ways the body tries to release anxiety.
How to manage anxiety?
Identify your anxious thoughts and find valid evidence
One of the most helpful ways of coping with anxiety is by reviewing your past behaviours and their outcomes. Whenever faced with anxiety, try to gather evidence that supports the anxious belief and contradicts the anxious thought. You will find that a lot of times these are just assumptions and not the reality.
For example, if your anxious thought is “I am going to get a bad appraisal”, you can do a small validity check of the thought by gathering data from past instances where this has happened to you.
Ground yourself well
Anxiety often tricks us into believing in hypothetical future scenarios. It makes us drift away from the present. To reorient yourself, you can elements from the present. For example, bite a slice of lemon or something sour with your teeth, and wash your face with a bowl of cold water. These things can shift your focus from anxiety to something more physical in nature.
The 5-4-3-2-1 exercise:
This is also a grounding exercise that can help you come back into real-time. It also helps in re-affirming yourself that you are safe and sound and that your thoughts are not capable of harming you.
Whenever you feel anxious, focus on your breath. Start with long, deep breaths and describe:
- 5 things you can SEE
- 4 things you can TOUCH
- 3 things you can HEAR
- 2 things you can SMELL
- 1 thing you can TASTE
Use journaling prompts
Some people might find journaling too overwhelming since it requires them to face their worries. Using journaling prompts is a solution-oriented approach and it can also help you have some control over your mind. There are a lot of prompts available over the internet for different kinds of scenarios. You can choose the ones that resonate with you and start journaling.
Reach out to a mental health professional
All said and done, sometimes the situation can get quite intense. During such times, reach out to a mental health professional. A mental health professional is trained in dealing with concerns like these. They can equip you with the right ways to approach the situation and healthy tools that help you get a hold of it.
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