If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation at work or had sweaty palms before seeing the dentist, then you know what anxiety feels like.
It’s no fun but it does serve a purpose: “Anxiety is tied to the fight or flight state,” explains Elizabeth Ward, PhD, a psychologist and performance coach in the Boston area. “It allows us to perform at a higher level by producing adrenaline and other hormones that give us energy and optimizes our bodies to pump blood to our lungs and hearts to get us moving.”
This chain reaction works as an evolutionary advantage in do-or-die situations, but regularly experiencing too much anxiety can indicate generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), says Dianne Chambless, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Just experiencing anxiety in itself isn’t a problem,” she says. “It’s when the anxiety is so severe it’s making your life miserable or interfering with your work, your relationships, your ability to enjoy hobbies or activities — that’s when we call it an anxiety disorder.”
Indeed, the National Institute of Mental Health characterize people with GAD as displaying “excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances.”
If you’re debating whether “it’s just stress” or something more, talk to your doctor who may refer you to a specialist for additional help. In the meantime, here are seven common signs associated with anxiety in women, according to psychologists:
1. You catastrophize frequently.
The number one sign of a generalized anxiety disorder is constant worry that gets in the way of doing everyday tasks. It’s okay if this happens from time to time but “at some point, given enough difficult experiences, it can cross the line into disorder,” Dr. Chambless says.
Generally speaking, Dr. Chamless says thoughts typically associated with generalized anxiety disorders are two-fold:
- Thinking it’s highly likely that something bad is going to happen, AND
- Thinking that if that something bad does happen, it would be truly awful
For example, if you’re socially anxious and you’re about to give a big talk at work, you’ll not only worry that people won’t like the presentation but you’ll also catastrophize that if you blow it, you’ll lose your job.
2. You have trouble falling — and staying — asleep.
Stress and anxiety can cause or exacerbate existing sleeping problems, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Not only does mentally running through your to-do list keep you up at night, but some researchers theorize that biological factors – like your brain structure or the neurotransmitters in your body — may also play a role, according to a systematic review published in Sleep.
To make matters worse, missing out on sufficient sleep (about seven to eight hours per night for most people) can also aggravate symptoms of anxiety. “If you’re consistently getting less than enough, your body’s not working at its top level, which makes you more susceptible to feeling anxious,” says Dr. Ward.
According to the Mayo Clinic, other physical symptoms associated with anxiety include:
- Muscle tension or aches
- Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
3. You frequently stress about your relationship.
This can take a toll on a friendship or marriage as the person with anxiety seeks reassurance, Dr. Chambless says — not just occasionally, but over, and over, and over again. Constantly being on edge can also breed irritability, another stressor that can impact the quality of the relationship.
4. You dwell a lot on your appearance.
While some of us may notice a new wrinkle, put a little makeup on it, and go on with our day, people with an anxiety order may become overly fixated on how they look
“A person who’s more anxious might obsesses about their appearance before they leave the house, ruminate on it more during the day, or even feel ‘Gosh, I don’t want to go to that dinner tonight because I don’t like the way that I feel,'” Dr. Ward explains.
5. You avoid social situations or parties.
To keep anxiety at bay, someone with GAD might skip out on events that may trigger their anxiety — which only impacts how they get along with others more. On top of that, dodging social events can put a strain on your relationship. “It restricts the spouse’s world as well as the world of the person who has the problem,” Dr. Chambless says.
6. You’re constantly comparing yourself to others.
Social status and money come up a lot among Dr. Ward’s clients, whether it’s dwelling on a friend’s exotic vacation or their kids going to a better school. While it’s common to feel a fleeting “I wish I had that,” this type of anxiety goes beyond momentary envy.
“It may become a major concern for people with anxiety,” Dr. Ward says. “It becomes a slippery slope where they have a lot of negative or over-exaggerated thinking.”
If you spend a lot of time on social media, that may only exacerbate this kinds of comparison-based thinking.
7. You struggle with drugs or alcohol.
While there’s no proof that substance abuse can cause GAD or vice versa, there is evidence of a relationship between the two.
Approximately 20% of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder have an alcohol or other substance use disorder, and about 20% of those with a substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder, according to the ADAA.
“Anxiety problems tend to start before substance abuse,” Dr. Chambless says. “We think at least some people start using drugs to self-medicate.” As for how much is too much, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for adult women, and up to two per day for men.
What to Do If You’re Struggling With Anxiety
Having anxiety can feel overwhelming and debilitating at times, but there are a lot of ways you can address these feelings and find help. Talk your doctor, who may refer you to a professional psychologist or licensed clinical social worker for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or a psychiatrist to discuss medication options. In addition to seeking professional advice, these steps may also help:
- Get more sleep. Experts recommend sleeping for at least seven hours each night to avoid negative effects on your mood, focus, and decision-making.
- Exercise more. Working out produces endorphins, which can help offset anxiety, Dr. Ward says.
- Rethink your diet. Getting the sufficient nutrients you need from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can improve your mood, according to GH Nutrition Director
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN.
- Try mindfulness techniques. Practicing meditation or yoga may help elicit a relaxation response to offset stress, Dr. Ward says.
If you’re struggling with anxiety and feel worried about your health or safety, you can contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This free, confidential information service can provide referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations