How Do I Know If I Have an Anxiety Disorder?
By Linda Rodgers
We all feel afraid of new things. We all worry about stuff. Both feelings are our brain’s way of keeping us safe. It’s how humans have survived for thousands of years.
If you’re going into a new class or meeting new people, for instance, it makes sense to be nervous. After all, you don’t know how it’s going to go. You may become a little quieter than you’d normally be or spend more time trying to get a feel for the class or group of people before speaking up. Those types of worries and anxious feelings are helpful. They keep us safe.
Anxiety disorders are different. They’re mental health conditions for which there is good treatment. To get an official diagnosis, a medical provider will find out how your worries and fears affect your everyday life.
What Anxiety Can Feel Like
Your anxiety has lasted at least six months and it makes you feel like:
- You’re in danger most of the time or you worry something bad is going to happen to you. You think about and feel these things most days of the week.
- Your fears are bigger than the situation. You worry about failing a test, but you also worry that failing the test means you’ll never do well in any class and you’ll never be able to graduate.
- Your thoughts are critical and repetitive. Maybe you constantly think negative thoughts about yourself or you’re stuck in an endless worry loop about things that may never happen.
- Your fears and worries are getting in the way of your everyday life
What Anxiety Can Look Like
When you have an anxiety disorder, you may behave differently than you used to. There are different types of anxiety disorders, and it’s possible to have just one or a couple that overlap.
- You may lash out, lose your temper, or feel angry most of the time. Maybe you snap at your friends or family.
- You may have panic attacks.
- You may start avoiding certain situations. Maybe you stay in your room because you don’t want to go to a party or hang out with people, or you skip class or don’t show up to an exam because you’re convinced you’re going to fail.
- You get tired a lot or have trouble falling or staying asleep.
- You may turn to alcohol or other substances because they feel like a quick way to turn down the thoughts in your head or calm your body.
- You may spend most of your time playing games on your phone because it distracts you from your worries.
- You may feel restless or have trouble focusing or paying attention.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD means your worries are constant and can center around different kinds of situations. People with GAD often experience “free-floating anxiety,” which means they feel a general sense of dread that things will go wrong rather than worrying about one specific thing. It can feel hard to control your worries because they spin out in every direction.
This type of anxiety disorder grows out of the experience of having repeated panic attacks. Panic attacks seemingly come from nowhere, and they can feel overwhelming and intense. Your heart may race and you may feel like you can’t breathe. It may feel like you’re having a heart attack.
Some people who experience panic attacks develop panic disorder, which is an intense fear of having another panic attack or losing control. You may start to avoid any situations that remind you of the panic attack. If, for example, you had a panic attack in the stacks of the library, you’d stop going to the library for fear of triggering another one. Or, if drinking caffeine or exercising increase your heart rate, you may stop doing both if you experience a faster heart rate when you have a panic attack.
Phobias are fears rooted in specific situations. Maybe you get super-anxious when you think about getting on a plane, you have a fear of heights, or you get nervous when you see spiders or bugs. Whatever the trigger, your phobia is bigger than the actual danger represented by it. You may understand that, but it doesn’t stop you from having the reaction.
You may start to avoid whatever sets off the fear, such as refusing to travel on a plane or staying away from skyscrapers. If you come face-to-face with your phobia, your heart may race and you may feel the symptoms of a panic attack.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Both of these disorders used to be considered anxiety disorders, but in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association reclassified them as separate—but related—conditions. They can each overlap with generalized anxiety or social anxiety. OCD involves having repeated unwanted or disturbing thoughts (obsessions), often coupled with repetitive behaviors meant to ward off the worries.
If, for instance, you’re afraid you’ll drive into the oncoming lane of traffic every time you’re behind the wheel, you may feel you have to count to 100 to stay safe before you start the car. Or you may be convinced something bad will happen to your mom unless you recite the same prayer at the same time every day.
You can develop PTSD if you’ve gone through something scary, dangerous, or shocking, or been in a situation where you felt your life was in danger. For example, if you were mugged or you were in an abusive relationship, those memories can trigger lots of feelings of anxiety and other intense emotions such as guilt, sadness, and anger.
If you’re experiencing any of these disorders or you just feel anxious all the time, you deserve the support you need to get through these difficult feelings. A mental health professional can work with you to manage your fears and anxieties so they don’t rule your life. To find help, check out these resources.
Learn more about anxiety and how you can get help or help someone else
Can I Be Anxious Without Having an Anxiety Disorder?
How Can I Talk to Someone About My Anxiety?
How to Help a Friend or Loved One with Anxiety
How to Build an Anxiety Toolkit
Everyone gets nervous about meeting someone new or standing up in front of a crowd, but social anxiety means you feel so self-conscious and self-critical that the thought of going to parties, meeting someone new, or talking with people you don’t know well fills you with dread. You may worry that people will judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. Sometimes you avoid social situations, or you may use substances to get you through them.