What Are The Symptoms of Anxiety

the basic symptoms of anxiety

Before treating any condition, it's good to know what you're treating!

When people talk about anxiety, it is rarely in a positive tone but occasionally they should because anxiety is actually a natural and protective defensive mechanism. The primary objective of it is to keep us safe and out of harm's way. The problem though is that in today's modern world, there is actually a lot of either fake or false stimuli that allow us to experience unnecessary anxiety. Essentially we detect danger, where danger doesn't exist! This is anomalous for a few reasons. Firstly, anxiety is best described as, the anticipation of danger, not the presence of it; that is fear. Secondly, because the brain is unable to differentiate between real or imagined danger, it makes it more difficult to determine the difference between fake or false sensory stimuli.

This may sound confusing because we are talking about two things that are essentially the same, fake and false, but there is sometimes a subtle difference! Mostly the difference is in the intent. While there is not a simple answer to this dilemma, I can hopefully give an example, from a psychological, not a legal perspective. Fake has all the attributes of being real but is most usually derived from an external source, i.e. someone or something else spreading the fake news. False, on the other hand, equally has all the attributes of truth but is mostly being generated by our brain! A dream of falling is a good example of a real experience of a false stimulus. Receiving or reading fake news, e.g. on your mobile or social media, creates real anxiety but is based on fake, non-existent stimuli. By that, I mean, the anxiety is created by the reading of the fake news, not the factual proof of its existence.

As stated above, anxiety is an anticipatory form of fear; i.e. it invokes the fear or stress response (fight or flight)! Therefore, many of the symptoms of anxiety are the same as those of intense fear or chronic stress. In fact, it's unusual for someone with anxiety, to not be exposed to more than their fair share of stressors but many of these stressors are not real either. Stress (distress), can be defined as the brain's response to sensory stressors. These stressors can be physical, emotional, psychological and environmental!

I say that Anxiety is an anticipatory form of fear because it is an awareness of what could, would or should happen; rather than what is actually happening. If you walk down a dark street and fear being attacked; anxiety is the response. However, if you walk down the same street and really are attacked; fear is the likely response. But whether it's fear or anxiety, the body's fight or flight response is pretty much the same! Practically speaking, life is too short to be overly concerned about what might, could or even should happen, even more so when it's, obviously, unlikely to happen. For example, the fear of flying is perhaps the most illogical of all fears, mostly because it's the safest form of travel; yet the most universally feared! And perhaps the most ironic of statements I have heard in recent years is that of a motorcyclist who wouldn't travel by plane because it is so unsafe!

So, in preparation for a course in Anxiety Management, it makes sense to be aware of its symptoms and you might say "obviously!." But given the number of people I see with anxiety, I know that an awareness of these symptoms is anything but obvious!

Below are some Anxiety symptoms:

Pounding heart (palpitations)        

Fuzzy head or giddy feelings

Sweaty palms

hot or cold flushes


Tingling feelings in hands and feet   

Tight chest

Stomach cramps





Pale complexion

Aching limbs

Sleep problems


Feeling lethargic

Feeling depressed

Poor judgment

Poor concentration

Make bad decisions

Make more mistakes or errors

Poor memory or forgetfulness

Becoming insular or withdrawn

Prone to anger outbursts

Feeling negative about life in general

Prone to minor ailments, colds, flu etc.

Exaggerated startle response

Generally feeling unwell or

Having a feeling of foreboding

These are a few of the many and varied symptoms of anxiety. Although anxiety can be defined as an awareness of certain physical feelings, thoughts are almost always involved in the process. The chain of events that lead to anxiety, which is the neural activation of the fear response, is almost identical for all humans. Yet, without a doubt, the way people describe the experience of anxiety can be very different.

The reason thoughts are involved is consequential of the feelings experienced, which are the result of the type and intensity of stress hormones and neurotransmitters surging through our body. Whilst we are aware of the feeling, we generally have no understanding of the neural processing taking place. To make sense of it we use our thought processes. If we can rationalise what has happened we can often return to normal quite quickly. For example, we hear a loud bang, it sounds like a gunshot, we become fearful, rush to the window and see an old car, the conclusion, it probably backfired! However, it's important to know that feeling always precedes thought. However, because they occur so close together, we think the thoughts precede the feeling! Of course, sometimes we may be correct (in that our assumption equals the reality, not that thought precedes feeling) and that potentially strengthens our belief in our evaluative powers! Which may actually worsen our anxiety because we may believe we can so accurately assess false information!

Because most of our life experience is outside of awareness (we'd be emotionally overwhelmed by everything our brain processes), we can become anxious, seemingly without cause. However, there's always a reason and anxiety is the consequence of the neural interpretation of any sensory experience which is most often a consequence of sensory memory stimulation. At any point of the day, our senses are processing millions, if not billions of pieces of information. Most of this is relatively neutral, however, when certain or uncertain sensory experience stimulates specific brain regions, an almost unstoppable chain of events ensue. There are two structures involved here: the amygdala for 'certain' negative experience and/or the extended amygdala for 'uncertain' perceptual dangers, both will react to real or imagined stimuli. Consequently, we have a natural predilection to become emotionally aroused by these stimuli and the greater the arousal, the greater the emotion. However, there is a lot more complexity in the brain's ability to process and rely on the response of just one brain region. There are projections to many regions, to and from the various parts of the amygdala, to mention but two, the nucleus accumbens shell (NAccs) and the ventral hippocampus. The NAccs plays more of a role in processing pleasure experiences and the ventral hippocampus plays a role in fear conditioning processes. Research has shown that damage to the ventral hippocampus reduces the amount of information sent to the amygdala by the dorsal and ventral hippocampus. Consequently, this can alter the experience and responses to conditions that will stimulate a fear response. Essentially these regions work closely together to process, evaluate and respond to the vast amounts of sensory information we absorb, every second of every minute of our life!

Throughout our lifetime we have countless such experiences and these invariably involve thought processes to interpret them, mostly subconsciously, and thus the link between thought and emotion is established. The relationship between thought and emotion varies from person to person. It has been my experience, with very anxious clients, that the level of negativity in their thinking often affects their communication (verbal and non-verbal). Consequently, this has a strong correlation to the development and intensity of their anxiety; thus making it a disorder.

Because the brain cannot tell the difference between real or imagined events it becomes easier to understand the mechanism of anxiety and why it's an anticipatory form of fear. Essentially you could define the difference between fear and anxiety as one of time! Fear is the real-time response to what is actually happening and anxiety is what you anticipate will or could happen.

Many of the things we become anxious about were encoded in our brain, specifically the amygdala and its neighbours, as we were developing. When a situation can relate what we feel, with what is happening, the experience becomes contextualised. For example, imagine a pregnant mother, imagine she was in an express elevator, one that drops very fast. This sudden drop creates a momentary feeling of weightlessness, which then invokes the fear response. At that moment, your hippocampus and amygdala encode fear and weightlessness; but have no context. Twenty years later, you're on a flight, having flown many times but now experience clear air turbulence (where the plane suddenly drops), immediately followed by weightlessness. At this point, in an instant fight/flight is activated, then the awareness of fear; now your brain has context! The probable outcome, a fear of flying develops but probably has nothing to do with flying. As alluded, this can happen even if you are a seasoned flyer and have flown many times before. The computations of a fear type of experience for each of us is almost limitless. Fortunately for most, it rarely manifests or at least not to the extent of becoming a disorder. Consequently, most people go through life with a normal experience of anxiety, after all, it's a life protecting part of being human; its purpose; to keep us safe!

Stress is defined as the brain/body reaction to environmental cues that lead to physiological and psychological stressors. Examples of these stressors can be physical, e.g. excessive heat, cold, noise, crowds or even isolation etc. this is oxidative stress. Or psychological, e.g. negative thought or language patterns, emotional difficulty, bad relationships, the death of a loved one, imbalanced brain chemicals etc. this is psychological stress. The chances of you only experiencing psychological stress alone, are somewhat remote. Therefore, it is important to consider oxidative factors and the reasons behind this are quite logical. If you only address the one, then the other has the potential to continue to elicit symptoms of stress. This can lead to the perception that the therapy is not working or, if you quit therapy, there is the probability you will see therapy as a failure!

If you have any specific questions, not covered by this article, please feel free to contact me.


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