Anxiety is not all panic attacks. Here are the less obvious symptoms to look out for.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Becky Fletcher
Concerned that a friend, co-worker or member of your family is suffering from anxiety? While generalised anxiety disorder is a common condition that many people experience, if left undiagnosed anxiety can seriously impact a person’s quality of life. But it’s not always immediately obvious when someone you care about is suffering from anxiety. Not everyone will be vocal about their feelings and many will actively try to disguise their suffering. Some people, especially children, might not even know they are experiencing anxious thoughts, never mind realise they can learn how to manage them.
Research by the mental health charity Mind shows that four out of five 18-34 year-olds admit to putting on a brave face when they feel anxious. Children might also display feelings of anxiety in a different way to adults, so if you’re a parent it helps if you know the warning signs.
Here are just some of the most common anxiety signs and signals to look out for in friends, family, co-workers and children:
Anxiety and illness
Anxiety often leads to physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach pains. With panic attacks, people may feel physical symptoms such as chest pains and shortness of breath, but not be aware they’re having a panic attack. Anxiety can also make certain physical illnesses such as eczema much worse.
‘For some people, the focus of anxiety might be physical health meaning they spend lots of time worrying that they may have a serious illness or feeling very conscious of any physical health problems,’ says Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at mental health charity Mind.
Anxiety and disrupted sleep
People suffering from anxiety often feel tired because their bodies over produce adrenaline, which switches them into flight or fight mode. People with anxiety may also find it affects their ability to sleep, as anxiety can often feel worse at night when there are less distractions, according to Anxiety UK.
‘Often people who are anxious may either sleep excessively or, alternatively, many people with anxiety have problems falling asleep or wake up several times in a night,’ says Dr Silver. ‘Some anxious people have nightmares or night terrors.’
Anxiety and need for reassurance
Anxiety has an effect on both the body and mind. Psychological symptoms include feeling nervous and tense, thinking about a worrying situation over and over again and feeling like other people are noticing your anxiety.
Psychological symptoms include feeling nervous, tense and thinking about a worrying situation.
‘You may also notice that someone asks you for lots of reassurance, or seems much less confident about things they’d normally be OK with,’ adds Boyd.
Anxiety and eating disorders
Feeling anxious can have a knock-on effect with eating habits, so sufferers may eat more or less than they previously did. As a result of stress, children may change their eating behaviours too by restricting their food, bingeing or purging.
‘Often people who are very anxious will be unable to eat as they may have no appetite,’ says Dr Silver. ‘Other people may restrict their eating or binge as a way of numbing the feelings of anxiety.’
Anxiety and perfectionist tendencies
Some people suffering from anxiety may start to obsess about their appearance and spend a lot of time and money trying to look ‘perfect.’ At work, anxiety may mean someone becomes overly perfectionistic, taking a long time to complete a task.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
People with anxiety disorders are often said to be people who are natural people pleasers and over-thinkers.
People who suffer from anxiety disorders are often said to be natural people pleasers and over-thinkers, who tend to be compassionate, intelligent and responsible. So what you’re looking for is an increase in these behaviours.
Another manifestation of anxiety is obsessive behaviour. ‘Obsessive behaviours such as excessive washing and checking might be a less obvious sign of anxiety in a loved-one,’ says Dr Silver.
Anxiety and difficulty focusing
When a person is anxious, they can be prone to ruminating over negative situations, which can contribute to difficulty concentrating. You might notice an anxious person is frequently late for work or unable to focus on tasks they would normally do with ease.
Anxiety and social isolation
If a loved one starts avoiding activities they used to enjoy, or is spending more time alone, it could be a sign something’s not alright.
‘Anxiety sufferers may find they feel like running away or escaping, or spending lots of time and energy working out how to avoid anxious situations,’ says Boyd. ‘If you experience social anxiety you might also avoid situations that could trigger your anxiety, such as meeting up with friends, going out shopping or even answering the phone.’
According to Anxiety UK, less obvious signs of avoidance behaviour can include the following:
- Getting taxis instead of using public transport.
- Making excuses to avoid going out with family or friends.
- Sitting at the end of the row in theatres or cinemas.
- Always being accompanied when out and about.
- Only shopping when it’s quiet.
- Using minor roads to avoid busier ones and crossing the street to avoid people.
Anxiety in children
It can be difficult for children to handle anxiety as they don’t always have the necessary language to articulate how they feel. Anxious children may start ‘acting out.’ An anxious child may start wetting the bed, having frequent toilet accidents in the day, lashing out at other children or refusing to eat certain foods. Other anxious children may be excessively clingy or have frequent tantrums.
Children don’t always have the necessary language to articulate how they feel.
‘Often anxious children may complain of frequent physical illnesses such as having stomach aches or headaches,’ says Dr Joanna Silver, specialist at the Young Person’s Unit at Nightingale Hospital. ‘It can be easier for a child to talk about physical symptoms than psychological symptoms.’
When it comes to undiagnosed anxiety in children (much like an adult not being able to focus at work) sometimes anxiety means children have a harder time at school. The importance of school in a young person’s life cannot be underestimated, yet anxiety has a tendency to affect this area of a child’s life significantly, say Anxiety UK.
‘Some children may avoid talking about school work, put off studying and avoid going to school,’ says Dr Silver.
If you or a loved one are struggling with feelings of anxiety, your first port of call should be your GP. For additional support, try one of the following resources:
✔️ Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
✔️ The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
✔️ Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
✔️ CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.