Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like blood pressure.” Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in the United States, and nearly one in three of us will deal with it at some point. Sadly, only 40% of people with this problem ever receive treatment. 

When Anxiety is a Problem

We all feel anxious occasionally; you are undoubtedly familiar with the racing heart, sweaty palms, and fast breathing that can accompany anxiety. Anxiety is a natural physiological response to danger; it functions to prepare us for fight or flight. The problem is that we don’t generally need to fight or flee in modern times. Our brains don’t recognize the difference between a bear and a traffic jam, though. If these feelings interfere with your daily life, are challenging to deal with, seem out of your control, and are disproportionate to reality, you may have a problem. 

The Major Types of Anxiety

There are several common forms of anxiety, including the following:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – This is precisely what it sounds like — people with GAD are worried about a wide variety of things, and these concerns plague them every day (for at least six months). If you struggle with this problem, you might not even be aware that you’re anxious or know what you’re worried about. It could be your health, the well-being of your loved ones, your financial situation, or work, for example. 

Panic Disorder – People with panic attacks have sudden and severe sensations of intense fear that seemingly come from nowhere. Someone amid a panic attack might experience heart palpitations, shaking, hyperventilation, the feeling of choking or feeling “suffocated,” and feeling detached or out of control. These episodes can seem like they last forever and can last up to several hours in reality. Sadly, people with panic disorder often avoid certain places, scenarios, or behaviors associated with their problems. 

Phobias – Unlike GAD, people with phobias have an intense fear of a specific thing or scenario, such as spiders or crowded places. Social anxiety is a common phobia. 

Common Symptoms

Mental Symptoms: 

  • Feeling restless and “jumpy” 
  • Having difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Having racing thoughts
  • Being unable to make a decision
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Feeling an impending sense of doom or as though something terrible is going to happen (some people mistake this for “intuition”)
  • Thinking negatively about yourself (low self-esteem)
  • Feeling unable to stop worrying or cease thinking about the past
  • Experiencing nightmares or night terrors
  • Having uncontrollable obsessive thoughts or expressing ritualistic behaviors (such as repeatedly washing your hands or checking door locks)
  • An inability to be still and calm
  • Difficulty listening to others and staying present in conversation

Physical Symptoms: 

  • A fast heart rate
  • Quickened respiration
  • Sweating
  • Feeling shaky (trembling results from adrenaline output during the fight or flight response)
  • Feeling tired and weak (almost flu-like at times)
  • Insomnia or interrupted sleep
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, pain, and diarrhea
  • Muscle tension and musculoskeletal pain
  • Having icy-cold hands and feet (when we are stressed, blood is shunted away from the extremities)
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Excessive yawning (this is caused by hyperventilation as our body struggles to get adequate oxygen)
  • Avoiding situations or people that trigger these feelings
  • Feeling like there’s something in your throat or having difficulty swallowing
  • Vision changes
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Worsened skin rashes, itchiness, or hives
  • Hot flashes and flushing (caused by an increase in heart rate and blood pressure)
  • Dry mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Decreased immunity and frequent infections
  • Frequent urination

The Causes of Anxiety

Teasing out the cause of anxiety is incredibly complex. Your genetic makeup, brain chemistry, home and work situations, and environment all play a role in developing this mental health problem. It is believed that between 30-50% of the variation of anxiety disorders is linked to your familial background. However, researchers aren’t sure whether this variation is attributable to our genes or how we learn to think and behave from our parents and other family members.

People Most at Risk

Specifically, GAD and phobias are more likely to affect women and individuals who are shy, have experienced traumatic events, or have a personal or family history of mental disorders. Of the anxiety disorders, males are most likely to have obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder. 

The stress of any illness increases the chances that anxiety will rear its ugly head. Certain health conditions, including thyroid problems, diabetes, respiratory diseases, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, or heart arrhythmias, are especially likely to occur concurrently with anxiety. Although roughly five percent of American adults have GAD, 11% of those with coronary artery disease and 13% with heart failure do. 

People with anxiety disorders are up to three times more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol. Although many people use drugs or alcohol to “self-medicate,” the misuse or withdrawal from these substances backfire and worsen anxiety. Alcohol and drugs can cause panic attacks. 

Certain medications can also cause anxiety. These include caffeine-containing drugs, such as some migraine medications, the medicines used to treat ADHD, corticosteroids, decongestants, thyroid medications, and some asthma medications.

Where you live even matters, for example, in a Census Bureau survey carried out in May of 2020, 48% of adults in Mississippi admitted to struggling with either depression or anxiety, but only 26% of adults in Iowa reported symptoms of these mental health conditions. 

In the survey mentioned above, anxiety (and depression) rates were highest in the 18-29 age group and lessened with age. 

The most significant stressors that we face in our lifetimes might include the death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, detention in jail or another institution, and the death of a close family member. 

The Dangers of Untreated Anxiety

Considering how common anxiety is, the risks of undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems are surprisingly severe. For example, untreated anxiety can develop into other mental disorders, encourage substance abuse, and cause social isolation, job loss, academic problems, and even suicide. In the workplace, anxiety can exhibit itself as procrastination, disorganization, an inability to concentrate, emotional outbursts, trouble forming new relationships, difficulty with teamwork, and communication problems. The fatigue caused by anxiety leads to mood fluctuations, which increase the chances that depression will rear it’s ugly head. Severe or long-lasting stress will also change the chemical balance in the brain and lead to mood disorders.

Traditional Treatments

Anxiety is generally treated with psychotherapy and medications. The most common form of psychotherapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches individuals to recognize and react differently to anxiety via mind-body awareness and exposure therapy. People with anxiety must learn how to live with it, rather than trying to get around it.

Several medications are used to relieve anxiety symptoms, including antidepressants. At times, sedatives are used for short periods. 

Self-Care and Complementary Therapies for the Treatment of Anxiety

Exercise is argumentatively the most effective option, outside of therapy and medication, to lessen your feelings of anxiety. By increasing levels of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in the brain, physical activity is a powerful stress reliever and helps with self-esteem and mood. 

As we’ve discussed, alcohol, recreational drugs, and caffeine can all trigger anxiety. Getting adequate sleep is also incredibly important for reducing anxiety and the risk for many other mental help disorders. 

Many stress management techniques are available to everyone, such as deep breathing exercises, visualization/imagery, yoga, and meditation. Both journaling and maintaining a log to look for patterns in what triggers your anxiety can be beneficial. You may choose to set aside a specific amount of time each day to worry or to write down your concerns in one place. You can even go through your list occasionally to see how many of the things that once caused you anxiety ever came to fruition. Some people find that taking time to do nothing but be still is vital for their mental well-being. 

Learning to manage your time, prioritize your obligations, and avoid procrastination is especially good if your feel overwhelmed by your daily life. Looking at your anxiety as a trigger to determine what areas in your life need attention can reshape your negative emotions into something positive. Take time to make a plan for changing the things that are causing you so much discord. Think in terms of baby steps. What can you do today, right now, to better your situation or emotional state?

Although the urge to withdraw from others is strong when anxiety levels rise, it is essential not to isolate yourself from your loved ones and the activities you enjoy. Distracting yourself from your anxiety with a favorite hobby or another task can be helpful when your feelings become overwhelming. However, one thing that people try doesn’t work — you absolutely can’t just suppress the anxious thoughts interfering with your life. This will only make the thoughts more intense and repetitive. You must accept your anxiety without judging it if you want to move past it. 

Note that complementary therapies will not adequately treat anxiety disorders if used alone. You will likely need professional help to assess and treat any brain chemical imbalances causing your symptoms, learn new coping techniques, and support as you modify your relationships and form boundaries. 

The Effect of Diet on Anxiety 

Other than keeping an eye on your alcohol and caffeine intake, considering how your dietary choices affect your blood glucose will likely benefit people with anxiety. By eating protein at breakfast, eating a healthful meal or snack every four hours, choosing whole grains over refined ones, and avoiding sugary processed foods, you will likely find that your mood is more stable and your anxiety is lessened. Drinking plenty of water is also crucial for mental well-being. 

Because most (95%) of the serotonin receptors are found in your gut lining, some researchers believe that probiotics can help to improve our mental state. Eating probiotic-rich foods, including pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir, has been associated with reducing anxiety symptomology.

There is some evidence that magnesium helps to reduce anxiety and depression. This action might be imbued by the mineral’s effect on neurotransmitters in the brain and on the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that helps to regulate the pituitary and adrenal glands, both of which play a critical role in our stress response. Foods rich in magnesium include leafy green vegetables, avocados, peas, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Also — dark chocolate! 😉 

Foods rich in zinc, such as oysters, shellfish, cashews, liver, beef, poultry, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, and egg yolks, have also reduced anxiety levels among study participants. 

The healthy omega-3 fatty acids in fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and specific oils, including flaxseed, soy, and nut oils, have proven effective in treating both anxiety and depression. 

Brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and herbs, rich in antioxidants, might improve mood and lessen anxiety. Consider choosing apples, cherries, plums, berries, artichokes, green leafy vegetables, and broccoli to boost your antioxidant intake.

Anxiety Resources

American Psychiatric Association. What are anxiety disorders

AmeriDisability. How to recognize unusual and distressing anxiety symptoms

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Myths and realities: Generalized anxiety disorder

Betterhelp. 18 common physical symptoms of anxiety

Betterhelp. How to tell if you have anxiety: 10 signs and symptoms.

Everyday Health. 7 causes of anxiety

Forbes, 10 sure signs you need to see a therapist (and how to find the right one).

Harvard Health Publishing. Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety

Healthline. Can anxiety cause a weird feeling in the head

Healthline: Magnesium for anxiety: Is it effective

Healthline. What causes anxiety disorders and anxiety

Larrieu T, Layé S. Food for mood: Relevance of nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for depression and anxiety. Front Physiol. 2018 Aug 6;9:1047. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.01047

Mayo Clinic. Anxiety disorders

Mayo Clinic. Coping with anxiety: Can diet make a difference

Medical News Today. What to know about anxiety

MedlinePlus. Anxiety.

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc fact sheet for professionals

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.

Russo AJ. Decreased zinc and increased copper in individuals with anxiety. Nutr Metab Insights. 2011 Feb 7;4:1-5. doi: 10.4137/NMI.S6349

Su KP, Tseng PT, Lin PY, Okubo R, Chen TY, Chen YW, Matsuoka YJ. Association of use of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids with changes in severity of anxiety symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Sep 7;1(5):e182327. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.2327

The American Institute of Stress. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory PDF

The Mighty. 32 symptoms of anxiety people thought they were the only ones having

The Washington Post. A third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression, Census Bureau finds amid coronavirus pandemic