Signs it is anxiety, not sickness

Experiencing occasional moments of anxiety is normal. You may face moments of anxiety when facing a problem at work or before taking an exam. In these moments, you may feel your heart beating rapidly, sweaty palms, or nausea. But, these symptoms of nervousness dissolve over time. 

While you may have experienced these symptoms at some point, anxiety is more than temporary worrying or stress. Worries and stress arise from external triggers such as an upcoming deadline or an argument with a loved one. Anxiety, on the other hand, is persistent worry in the absence of stressors. 

The American Psychology Association provides a more detailed definition: an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tensions in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune.  

Aside from its mental symptoms, anxiety also produces a roster of physical symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, and muscle tension. Most people pay more attention to the physical symptoms as they are easy to identify. As a result, people tend to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying cause. 

However, below are a few symptoms of anxiety that can help you discern if it is an illness or anxiety. 

  • Irritability 

A sign that what you are experiencing is anxiety and not an illness is irritability. Yes, this symptom may seem vague because when you are unwell, who wouldn’t be a bit irritated. However, if you find yourself getting worked up over the slightest things, you should take that as a sign of anxiety. 

Anxiety triggers our fight, flight, or freeze response. It also makes you believe that you are constantly in danger. Hence, this reduces your tolerance to stress. As your stress tolerance decrease, you become more susceptible to snapping at someone. 

  • Depersonalization or derealization

Another sign that your physiological symptoms are the result of anxiety and not a sickness is if you experience frequent bouts of derealization or depersonalization. Both symptoms disrupt how you perceive yourself and the world. 

Derealization is the sensation of being outside of your body. Derealization is a frightening thing to experience. Reality slips away, and one minute you can be walking down the street, and suddenly everything feels two-dimensional or unreal. 

Depersonalization is feeling like you are out of your body. People usually describe depersonalization as an out-of-body experience. But I don’t think it is an accurate description of depersonalization. Most times, you feel like you are watching and hearing yourself in real-time. Your actions feel distant-like you are not the person doing them. Your limbs or body can appear distorted and foreign to you.  

These two symptoms frequently accompany anxiety. Reports show that stress and anxiety are the primary causes of derealization and depersonalization. The reason, your fight or flight response to stress floods your brain with adrenaline which redirects blood from the brain to the larger muscle groups and core. Because your brain has less blood, you may feel more lightheaded. As a result, you may experience derealization or depersonalization. 

If this happens to you, don’t freak out. Though, it is perfectly understandable to do so. Breathe. The adrenaline usually takes two to three minutes to metabolize, but you should take 20 minutes to calm down physically and mentally. 

  • Phobias and coping mechanisms 

Another sign that you are experiencing anxiety and not an illness is if you notice that you have developed new unexplainable phobias. 

We all have phobias. Whether they developed during childhood or are the result of a bad experience, phobias, sometimes, are our brain’s way of trying to keep us from harm. However, some phobias are the result of anxiety and can become obstacles in your daily life. 

Technically, phobias are categorized as anxiety disorders and fall into two groups: specific and complex phobias. Specific phobias usually stem from a bad experience, but complex phobias stem from mental or emotional distress.  

Specific phobias usually do not need treatment as they do not pose a great inconvenience to your daily life. But, complex phobias do. Common complex phobias like agoraphobia (the fear of being in social places) and social phobia stem from anxiety. These phobias can make you feel more alone and can also affect your self-esteem. 

  • Attacks (trouble breathing) 

A telltale sign of anxiety is experiencing a panic attack or anxiety attack. Though both terms are used interchangeably, a panic attack differs from an anxiety attack. A panic attack is a sudden overwhelming surge of emotions such as fear and discomfort. You may feel your chest tighten and as your breathing has stopped. You may also begin to feel dizzy or lightheaded. 

While anxiety attack has similar symptoms, it is a bit different. An anxiety attack is the result of symptoms that have been gradually building up. 

  • Gastrointestinal disruptions

Gastrointestinal issues are another sign of anxiety. However, I would like to clarify that gastrointestinal illnesses or disorders can arise independently of your mental health. 

While anxiety and gastro illnesses are mutually exclusive, there is research supporting the theory that anxiety causes gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. Studies have shown the comorbidity between anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome. There is a plethora of research and information linking both that treatment for some gastrointestinal disorders may involve therapy.

  • Physiological strangeness

A final sign that you are experiencing anxiety is if you feel or have been feeling tingling or numbness. You may feel tingling and numbness usually in your face and limbs. The tingling or numbness you feel is the feeling of blood rushing to your extremities as your fight or flight response kicks in. While blood rushes to your extremities, other areas of your body are left feeling weak. 

Tingling and numbing can also be caused by hyperventilation, which indirectly happens when you are anxious. 

Along with the symptoms listed in this article, there are other ways anxiety can manifest itself. Despite its symptoms, anxiety is manageable. Please reach out to a medical health professional or therapist for help. 

Take care!

Sources:

Alvord, M., & Halfond, R. (2019, October 28). What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/anxiety-difference. 

Banerjee, A., Sarkhel, S., Sarkar, R., & Dhali, G. K. (2017). Anxiety and Depression in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Indian journal of psychological medicine39(6), 741–745. https://doi.org/10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_46_17

Fond, G., Loundou, A., Hamdani, N., Boukouaci, W., Dargel, A., Oliveira, J., Roger, M., Tamouza, R., Leboyer, M., & Boyer, L. (2014). Anxiety and depression comorbidities in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): a systematic review and meta-analysis. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience264(8), 651–660. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-014-0502-z

Foster, J. A., & McVey Neufeld, K. A. (2013). Gut-brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends in neurosciences36(5), 305–312. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005

Lach, G., Schellekens, H., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2018). Anxiety, Depression, and the Microbiome: A Role for Gut Peptides. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics15(1), 36–59. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-017-0585-0

Leggio, L., & Abenavoli, L. (2008). State and trait anxiety and depression in patients affected by gastrointestinal diseases: psychometric evaluation of 1641 patients referred to an internal medicine outpatient setting. International Journal of Clinical Practice.

Raypole, C. (2019, March 15). Physical symptoms of anxiety: What your body may be telling you. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/physical-symptoms-of-anxiety#symptoms. 

Santos-Longhurst, A., & Legg, T. J. (2019, February 5). Nervousness: Why it’s different from anxiety & how to feel better. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/nervousness. 

Vandergriendt, C. (2019, September 30). What’s the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/panic-attack-vs-anxiety-attack. 

Virzi, J. (2021, August 25). Why does anxiety make me feel so irritable? The Mighty. https://themighty.com/2020/05/anxiety-anger-irritability/. 

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