For some people, anxiety is a sensation that's hard to ignore. For others, it can creep up and affect them without their awareness, manifesting itself in some less-than-obvious ways. Everyone experiences shifts in mental states differently, and there are a number of first signs of anxiety that people can often miss. Pinpointing these symptoms can help you recognize that you're experiencing anxiety, which can lead to addressing the root of the issue.
"Many of the initial symptoms of anxiety are physiological, or bodily changes," says psychologist Anthony P. DeMaria, Ph.D over email. "We can overlook things like increased rates of respiration, increased heart rate, and muscle tension, thinking that they are physical sensations unrelated to our mental life."
Additionally, one of the common symptoms of anxiety is ruminative worry, or thinking about stressors or the future in ways that is repetitive, distressing, and anticipating negative outcomes, says DeMaria. We often think about things that could potentially go wrong in the future, so it's not uncommon to identify this as a sign of anxiety and instead think of it as adaptive, healthy, and useful — which sometimes it can be.
Each one of these nine symptoms alone does not necessarily indicate issues with anxiety, but if you're experiencing them together, it might be useful for you to seek a professional opinion.
If you find yourself tossing and turning at night dreaming about unpleasantries, you might be experiencing anxiety. "Our dreams can be a place where thoughts and feelings we avoid during the day manifest," says Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC over email. "Our minds create a narrative to accompany the emotions we're experiencing. Nightmares of falling, being chased, or being trapped are common themes associated with anxiety."
"Anxiety hates uncertainty, so one of the ways people manage is excessive planning," says Bruneau. "They feel uncomfortable with unstructured time or spontaneity, and live by lists. While this can be helpful for short-term anxiety-management, it prevents us from ever opening up to, understanding, and learning to manage anxiety in the long-term."
Anxiety can also lead to feeling forgetful or distracted. "Anxiety takes us out of the present and causes us to focus on whatever lies it's telling us," says Bruneau. "As a result, it makes it really challenging to be present in conversation." If you find yourself tuning out of conversations or forgetting important dates, anxiety may be to blame.
4Feeling Pervasive Guilt
"Anxiety and depression, which often co-occur, are commonly rooted in shame — the belief that we are not enough," says Bruneau. "This is usually accompanied by a critical inner voice that berates us for not meeting (usually unrealistically high) expectations. The response to this self-criticism is guilt and shame, though most of us recognize guilt before recognizing shame."
5Sore Neck Or Back
Physical pain in your neck or back can also indicate some mental distress. "Stress and anxiety tend to cause us to tense up," says Bruneau. "All of a sudden, it feels like we've done a serious back workout and can't figure out why.
6Obsessing Over Details
Anxiety can lead to obsessing over little details or nit-picking trivial matters. "When you feel out of control of important areas of your life, the brain feels compelled to make order and take control where it can," says psychologist Dr. Charlynn Ruan, Ph.D. over email. "This can manifest in compulsive cleaning, organizing, scheduling, or general fussiness."
Feeling more bothered by everything than usual? It may be your mental state. "Anxiety takes a toll on relationships because stress hormones make you feel cranky and on-edge," says Ruan. "If you aren't in touch with how you are feeling internally, it is easy to externalize those feelings of irritation onto those around us.
8Changes In Appetite
Anxiety can cause changes in appetites, ranging from increased cravings to an aversion to food. "Stress hormones can wreak havoc on our appetites," says Ruan. "Cortisol makes us crave sweets, and we may overeat as a way to balance out those hormone imbalances. On the flip side, intense anxiety can kill our appetite. Anxiety activates our sympathetic nervous system, which diverts blood and energy away from the digestion system and into our extremities. If we stay in this anxious state for too long, it wears out our body and messes with our digestive health."
We think of anxiety as being a restless feeling, but it can also manifest as exhaustion. "Our bodies aren't meant to be in a state of constant alertness and stress, and when we feel anxious, our bodies try to compensate by calming us down and putting us to sleep," says Ruan. "But when we fight this with caffeine, poor sleep, and constant activity, we end up wearing out our internal systems. When our minds are racing and our hormones are out of balance, we get into a state of perpetual exhaustion, but inability to sleep at night."