The feeling of anxiety is universal. Anxiety disorders, however, are much more complex. If you have been struggling with stress or worry, however, there are a lot of possible explanations. From other mental health diagnoses, to everyday stress, figuring out
what is anxiety — and what isn't — can be beneficial to your mental health.
While you cannot be diagnosed with a mental illness without seeing a professional, it is possible to understand how diagnoses work. Sometimes, the lines between what is considered common, or healthy, and what is considered to be worth treating, are a bit thin.
"The difference between feelings of anxiety and anxiety disorder is how much your anxiety affects your activities of daily living and how much it interferes with your life," LGBT-affirming therapist
Katie Leikam tells Bustle. The same principle is true for a variety of other disorders that share similar sets of symptoms, like depression, trauma, and ADHD. If your feelings of stress or worry have been bothering you significantly, or for a significant period of time, it is likely time to see a professional, regardless of whether or not your symptoms align with an anxiety disorder specifically.
Here are nine things you think are signs of your anxiety, but may not be, according to experts.
Having difficulty sleeping can be caused by a myriad of physical and mental health conditions. If you're struggling with insomnia, it's important to talk to a doctor or therapist about the issue before concluding what the issue is on your own.
"A lot of people with anxiety disorders have disturbed sleep patterns," psychiatrist and founder of
Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, Dr. Vinay Saranga, tells Bustle. "However, just because you can’t fall asleep or have other difficulties with sleep doesn’t point to an anxiety disorder on its own. There are many reasons your sleep could be disturbed from having caffeine too close to bedtime, too much screen time before bedtime, or some other health issue that is interfering with sleep." Clean sleeping or talking to a professional may help.
Anxiety disorders are generally not caused by specific situations, but rather feelings of distress across time and place. If you are feeling specifically burned out because of circumstances, then, you might not be dealing with a disorder.
"If you work long hours, have a very stressful job, [... or] you are up against tight deadlines or have people’s lives in your hands, you might feel a lot of stress at times," Dr. Saranga says. "Again, this is situation specific and would not indicate an anxiety disorder." You may have an anxiety disorder that is worsened by work stress, but if
work stress is your primary concern, that may not qualify as a disorder.
Having A Recurring, But Particular, Fear
Fear is universal. If you have a specific fear that you've been dealing with, you may be experiencing feelings of anxiety, but not a disorder.
"Fear is something that everybody experiences at one time or another," Dr. Saranga says. "If you decide to ride a roller coaster or have to give a big presentation at work, you might experience some level of fear. That would be normal fear and does not mean you have an anxiety disorder, because it is a specific anxiety-provoking situation." A fear or phobia can become linked to an anxiety disorder, however, if you still feel emotions when you are not in the presence of the thing you fear, like being scared when you're around roller coasters, not just on them. It's always worth talking to someone if you aren't sure how your symptoms are manifesting.
Feeling Anxious During A Stressful Situation
Everyone gets anxious. Even heightened feelings of anxiety can be considered common if they're surrounding an anxiety-provoking situation.
"Feeling anxious about the first day of work could be confused for anxiety, but that’s really normally a stressful situation because it has the ability to go great or not so great," Leikam says. If these feelings persist after the event, however, then the feelings are more likely to be classified as a disorder.
One mental health condition that sometimes outwardly mimics feelings of anxiety is
ADHD: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"[ADHD] presents with disorganization, impulsivity, overactivity, sometimes chattiness, inattention, [or the] inability to settle down to do a task for more than a few minutes," psychoanalyst
Laurie Hollman, PhD, tells Bustle. "The person may appear flustered and irritable mimicking anxiety, but actually have this different condition that needs to be managed differently than anxiety." If you feel that others think you're anxious, but you're experiencing different feelings, you may want to talk to your doctor about ADHD.
Feeling On-Edge And Irritable
Despite seemingly being very different diagnoses, anxiety and depression often share symptoms. It's important to pay attention to certain combinations of symptoms to know what you need to feel better.
"Persistent feelings of agitation, nervousness, restlessness, irritability may actually be a sign of clinical depression," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of
The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "Depression often presents as irritability. That feeling of being edgy, grumpy, nervous which many associate with anxiety could be one of the symptoms of a major depressive disorder." If you feel like you're constantly on-edge, it's valid to seek professional help.
Feeling Anxious In The Morning
Sometimes, feelings of anxiety aren't mental health related at all. If you're going through caffeine withdrawal, you may experience what feels like an anxiety disorder.
"Feelings of anxiousness, headache, cold, clammy hands, [and] feeling on edge almost always associated with anxiety are also the same symptoms someone who drinks caffeine daily may experience if they have not had caffeine," Dr. Klapow says.
"Caffeine withdrawal can mimic symptoms of anxiety disorders." Pay attention to your caffeine intake, and see if your morning coffee changes any of your symptoms.
Another diagnosis that may share symptoms of anxiety is mania. Mania can be caused by
bipolar disorder or a variety of other conditions, and there are some specific signs to look out for.
"Feelings of thoughts racing, not feeling in control of the situation, nervousness, [and] worry could be anxiety — but they may also be symptoms of a manic episode as seen in bipolar disorder," Dr. Klapow says. "Mania is not always associated with euphoria. Rather it can be associated with persistent worry and anxiety." If you have an inkling that you're experiencing a
manic episode, it is important to seek professional support.
Feelings Related To A Specific Event
Your symptoms may be confused for or misdiagnosed as anxiety if you do not properly explore the root causes. If you believe there may be an underlying traumatic event behind your symptoms, you may instead be dealing withp post-traumatic stress disorder (
"An individual may go to their physician or even psychiatrist with complaints of anxiety-like symptoms [like] insomnia, fear, lack of concentration or worry," licensed mental health counselor Dr. Deja Gilbert, chief operating officer at
Futures Recovery Healthcare, tells Bustle. "If that professional does not explore possible underlying issues, such as a history of trauma or abuse, they oftentimes begin to treat the symptoms versus the diagnosis or cause." Treating trauma looks different than treating generalized anxiety; it's important to explore your feelings with your therapist or doctor.
Whatever the cause, if you're experiencing persistent feelings of worry or stress, it is worthwhile to seek help. Not all feelings that resemble anxiety are caused by anxiety disorders, but all unpleasant feelings deserve to be treated.