Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
August 9, 2021
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

How does anxiety make you feel and what exactly is it? Feeling anxious is this horrendous feeling in our belly and our hearts that sometimes helps, and sometimes hurts. Feeling fear or anxious is totally normal.

You might be curious as everyone is talking about their mental health and anxiety and you don’t really know what that feels like. Or maybe, you are walking the line between feeling and being anxious. You might need a little confirmation of what is normal and what is a mental illness. 

Feeling anxious is like a difficult cycle to break from. You worry about taking the train, although you need to take it and maybe nothing will happen. But you worry about being stuck there, and throwing up because it did happen once in your life. You will worry all week until Friday comes, and you need to finally take that train. 

Your anxiety and stress levels are through the roof already, you could not sleep all week. When eventually you do get on the train, there are always two options. You might, or might not throw up.

However, every time you do get nauseous (because of the train or the anxiety) that will confirm your smart brain. However, it is not great at remembering when you don’t get nauseous. Why does your brain work that way, and what are the details there?

How does anxiety make you feel?

Anxiety can come in many sizes and shapes, you can be anxious about thunder, about your kid falling, about your workload or about your health. 

Further, it is very possible that spiders are not your favorite animal and that you would like to run when you see a needle. Is all this anxiety? You surely are feeling intense fear in all these cases, however it does not mean that you have anxiety disorder. 

In general, we can conclude that anxiety does not make you like the best version of yourself.  Anxiety disorder (or generalised anxiety disorder) comes with physical and mental symptoms. Everyone reacts a little different.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), made by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), recognizes the following physical symptoms:

  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance (trouble sleeping, staying asleep, or unsatisfying sleep).

For some, it does not stop there. Many people get diagnosed with anxiety after a visit to the emergency room. They go there as they think they have a heart attack or the pain in their stomach becomes unbearable. Once they are there, there is usually no diagnosis or they first hear that it is mental.

They are most likely experiencing a panic attack. A panic attack is an intense moment of fear. It feels like there is a climax after a couple of minutes and goes down again after. Panic attacks can look or feel like:

  • A pounding or rapid heartbeat, palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nauseous, abdominal distress
  • Dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) 
  • Depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
  • Chills or
  • Heat sensations.

Basically, this is very logical. Anxiety is a normal reaction of the body trying to protect us against danger or a threat. It is primitive, our brain is smart. It is great at remembering what makes us feel in danger. 

Our fight-or-flight response gets activated. Stress hormones like adrenaline run through our veins, making our body ready to literally fight or flight. Basically, we feel an enormous amount of stress in our body.

To survive this threat, we need to think fast, we need warm muscles and be in a zone of high alert. Great, you have espaped this threat. In general, we don’t have to run away from wolves or tigers anymore. Today, the threat might have been a car accident, or a very pressing deadline, or traffic. 

While some people are very resilient in regressing to a state where your body does not feel stress anymore, others are not. 

Misfortunes never come alone. These physical symptoms usually go together with a range of psychological symptoms. Officially, these are the symptoms recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or the DSM) and/ or by the ICD.

Mental health anxiety symptoms:

  • Free-floating, persistent and excessive worrying or an intense fear
  • Difficulty concentrating or the mind going blank
  • A feeling of danger or dread, accompanied by the above symptoms without a clear trigger
  • The feeling of nervousness or fear of impending actual or imagined danger 

What does this look like in human language?

More concrete, you might have thoughts about what is worrying you. It feels like you don’t have control over that anymore. In general, these worries are about the future. 

Normal anxiety helps you walk a bit faster at night because you think you might be robbed in the dark. Anxiety that is not functional anymore, makes you not leave your house anymore at all. 

These thoughts can be about anything and everything, but with anxiety disorder they spin out of control. You can’t sleep anymore because you think you will fail a test. These things spin out of control and you have no idea how the anxiety radio off. Life can become too overwhelming, even the things that seem rationally small.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

Anxiety can look and feel different for everyone. Below you can find 7 types of anxiety, recognized by the APA:

  1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  2. Panic disorder (PD): Anxiety disorder accompanied with a pattern of panic attacks
  3. Specific phobias or simple phobias: Anxiety bound by situational phobias like animal phobias, needles, water, small spaces, clowns
  4. Social phobia or social anxiety disorder:  Anxiety mostly bound to social situations and the evaluation of others
  5. Agoraphobia: anxiety bound to public transportation, open or enclosed space, standing in line or being outside alone
  6. Separation anxiety disorder: Anxiety about losing someone important to you
  7. Selective mutism: Anxiety mostly for children, resulting in not speaking to others

Other mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder are no longer categorized as anxiety disorder, but fall under other related disorders.

What is the difference between an anxiety disorder and normal anxiety?

In general ‘normal’ fear or anxiety is because of a real threat or danger. Anxiety disorder is when you feel anxious and it is taking over your daily life. 

When your day to day life is compromised by your ruminating thoughts or other mental health concerns, it is time to seek medical advice. A mental health specialist can help you with coping strategies and your anxiety symptoms.

How common is anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health conditions. 

Statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health show that 19.1% of adults in the USA were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in 2016. 

Women (23.4%) seem to be more sensitive to it than men (14.3%). About 31% of adults will be confronted with any anxiety disorder in their lives.  

Adolescents have more bleak numbers. About 31.9% of them had an anxiety disorder, girls (38%) again scored higher than boys (26.1%).

Some other statistics by the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • separation anxiety disorder: 1-4% in children of the general population, 6.6% of lifetime prevalence
  • Social anxiety disorder: 9.1% of adolescents, 12.1% of adults over their lifetime
  • Panic disorder: 2.3% of adolescents, 4.7% over their lifetime

How does anxiety look like in children?

Children go through many developmental stages, worrying or being anxious is not necessarily an indication for mental illness. 

Children should and probably will feel anxiety about the following things:

  • babies & toddlers (0-2 years): strangers, loud noises, costumes, changes, separation, large objects..
  • Preschoolers (3-4 years): dogs and animals, the dark, noises at night, monsters and ghosts..
  • School ages (5+ years): angry teachers, sickness and injurances, nightmares, natural disasters, being home alone, snakes & spiders..

If your child can’t stop thinking of these or others, seek treatment by a mental health provider. In general they feel stuck, or their behavior has changed (f.e. Extreme shyness).

When to see a doctor or the ER

You should see the emergency room when you have suicidal thoughts. 

Further if you are experiencing panic attacks (or an anxiety attack) or physical signs that concern you, you should go to the ER as well. They can confirm by medical test if these are symptoms of anxiety disorders or panic attacks or if these physical health problems are due to a physical illness.

A doctor can provide medical advice in case of an underlying health issue. 

What is the cause?

We are not entirely sure what causes generalized anxiety disorder. We do know that anxiety is a normal and healthy stress response, until the moments that the things that trigger anxiety or not a threat anymore and they have an influence on our everyday life.

Genetics might play a role, as do other medical symptoms like heart diseases, diabetes or others. A big reaction to stress or chronic stress don’t help either. Lastly, there might be associations with other psychosocial factors like a traumatic event, shyness or a personality with perfectionistic and obsessive tendencies.

What can I do about it?

You can undertake some steps to take care of your mental health before seeing a doctor.

There is general advice that can lower the risk of developing anxiety disorders: 

  • not abusing drugs and alcohol
  • eating a complete and healthy diet full of grains, fruits and vegetables 
  • not drinking too much coffee
  • and getting enough sleep.

However, this will not solve all problems. It is essential that you try changing up your lifestyle as well. You need to pay attention to lowering your stress levels and taking care of your mental health in other ways.

Other ways to lower your anxiety disorder symptoms or get a handle on your stress levels can be:

  • physical exercise. f.e. yoga
  • mindfulness 
  • deep breathing exercises
  • visiting friends and family, or support groups.

Usually a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication (f.e. anti anxiety medication like benzodiazepines, SSRIs, SNRIs or monoamine oxidase inhibitors) is prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. 

Conclusion 

Anxiety is a normal stress reaction in life. It is biological, our body and brain gets ready for a threat. And it is also mental, your thoughts are stuck. You keep worrying and it is difficult to put your thoughts on the side.  

Anxiety can have an intense impact on your personal, professional and academic life. It does not need to stop you from living your life.

To come back to your normal functioning state, you need to treat the disorder. Medicine and therapy help a lot. Join a group, talk about it, see a therapist that will be able to coach you through and get the right treatment. 

Get help as soon as possible when anxiety hits you hard or if it becomes an everyday worry

Children, adolescents and adults can suffer from anxiety. There is no shame in admitting that you might suffer from one of these anxiety disorders. As you can see, it is very common. 

There are many types of anxiety like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias and many more. 

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