Considering that your life is a massive pile of stress (we feel you), it’s easy to shrug off perpetual angst as nothing more than run-of-the-mill worrying ― but downplaying your feelings might mean you end up ignoring clues that a more serious anxiety issue is at play.
The earliest signs of an anxiety disorder are really easy to miss, mainly because there’s no big event that brings our attention to our reactions (think: being hyperorganized or skipping a party). We may not immediately notice that anxiety is running the show because we typically treat each decision we make as an isolated incident.
“The little things we do to cope with anxiety, initially, don’t seem out of the ordinary,” said Inna Khazan, a Boston-based clinical psychologist.
Plus, there’s still a significant amount of stigma keeping the reality of what anxiety is ― and does ― quiet and misunderstood.
“This creates a great deal of focus on the many alternatives to anxiety, so we’re less inclined to think about or even accept anxiety as a viable option,” explained Marissa Long, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive WISE, a mental health subscription box service.
The following red flags can help you suss out the areas of your life that anxiety has too much control over ― and some guidance on how to relieve some of it.
1. Your daily routine is becoming more rigid
Sure, sticking to a routine can help you stay organized and reach your goals more efficiently. But if you find it’s becoming more difficult to break free of your routine or try new things, it could be a sign that anxiety is on the verge of a hostile takeover.
Anxiety can coax you into holding onto what’s most familiar, said Laura Rubin, a licensed clinical psychologist at Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center in New Hampshire. This is because your limbic system (the “emotional” part of the brain) floods the neocortex (the more “rational” part of the brain) and blocks you from being able to brainstorm alternative responses when you’re in stress overload. (Hence why your comfort zone feels so, well, comfortable when you’re under pressure.)
The fix: The best way to start diffusing the situation is to practice self-awareness, Rubin said. Reflect on the ways you’re currently resistant to switching things up in your life and identify alternative ways you could handle similar situations in the future. Then start with small goals to increase the likelihood of success. For example, if last-minute dinner invites turn you into a puddle of stress sweat, start with accepting a quick coffee date and work your way up from there.
2. You prepare for every worst-case scenario
Doing a bit of planning and advanced problem-solving can help ward off stress and drama, as long as you do it in moderation. Otherwise, your “what if?” sessions can start taking up too much of your time and actually cause more anxiety, Khazan said. Eventually, you might start to feel like you can’t do anything unless you’ve thought through every possible scenario. And, of course, you can’t be sure that you’ve thought of everything ― so, she said, you’ll just end up anxious anyway.
The fix: Notice when a new “what if?” starts flashing in your mind, Khazan said, and respond with, “I don’t know what will happen, let’s see.” In doing this, you respond to the anxious thought without pushing it away and without getting stuck in it.
3. The smallest things set you off
When you feel irritated or straight-up nuclear, it’s easy to blame your anger on the situation or person you think is making you feel that way. But anxiety could be the underlying culprit, said Kathryn Moore, a psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
Because anxiety and anger both trigger the fight-or-flight response ― resulting in symptoms like a racing heart and tense muscles ― it can be easy to mistake one for the other.
The fix: The next time anger strikes, ask yourself if the external factor that set you off is really upsetting you or if anxiety is behind your short fuse, Moore suggested. Acknowledge it if anxiety is the culprit, and appreciate that it’s trying to protect you. Remind yourself that you don’t have to act on anxious feelings just because you’re having them. If you accept the physiological sensations of anxiety as they brew (by not judging or trying to change them), you’ll increase your odds of staying calm, she said.
4. Your neck and shoulders are sore
“As with other sneaky signs, neck and shoulder pain are easy to dismiss or overlook as anxiety because they can be blamed on other things,” Long said, noting that pain can also come from things like a new pillow or super-uncomfortable office chair. “The difficulty is that these are very real possibilities, but so, too, is anxiety.”
Anxiety causes muscle tension, which can change the way you hold your body. Your shoulders tend to migrate toward your ears, and over time, this can cause neck and shoulder pain, as well as headaches and muscle spasms.
The fix: Take periodic time-outs to do some gentle stretching ― say, first thing in the morning, at the start of every work break and just before bed ― to release the physical tension that your anxiety is causing, Long said. Progressive muscle relaxation can also help you unclench: Flex the area of your body that’s tense, hold for a few seconds and release.
5. Your appetite is MIA
Skipping meals can become the status quo when your schedule is hectic. An uptick in the stress hormone cortisol prepares your body for fight-or-flight and sends your appetite packing in the process, Moore said. You might think that it’s just the result of being crunched for time, but anxiety may be running in the background if your hunger cues have been missing for a few days.
The fix: Skipping or delaying meals can cause blood sugar issues, and the constant spikes and crashes can make dealing with stress and anxiety that much harder. If your appetite is AWOL, it’s up to you to fill in for your hunger cues: Schedule regular meal times for yourself, even if that means eating when you’re not very hungry, Moore said. Also, keep a stash of high-protein snacks, such as nuts, turkey jerky and string cheese, so that you can eat at regular intervals no matter how busy you are.
6. You wake up in the middle of the night
Waking up hours before your alarm isn’t just annoying, it may be a sign of anxiety. You might understand that you’re feeling worried or preoccupied about something (a tiff at work or a bill you need to pay), but accepting it as something more serious can be harder to swallow, Long said. When you have anxiety, hormonal and neurotransmitter components can hijack the sleep-wake cycle’s arousal system, so your body may be suckered into waking up at an absurd hour.
The fix: Don’t toss and turn for longer than 30 minutes, Long advised. Otherwise, you might condition your body to react this way every time you hit the sheets. Get up and do something that’s soothing and distracts your brain from worrying, like gentle stretching, deep breathing or listening to a sleep-inducing meditation, until you feel sleepy again. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
7. You half-finish your yawns
Struggling to complete a yawn doesn’t happen all the time, so you barely notice when it does. But you should definitely pay attention. The same can be true of shortness of breath ― you might assume it’s because you haven’t hit the gym in a while, but it could be a sign that you’re in anxiety mode. When your body taps into your fight-or-flight response during anxiety, breathing can become shallow and more rapid as it prepares to protect itself from danger, Long said.
The fix: “Practicing breathing exercises on a daily basis can significantly improve some of the physiological aspects of anxiety,” Long said. Start with inhaling for a count of two and exhaling for a count of four. Gradually increase that count as you feel more comfortable. You can also use an app, such as breathbox, to do the counting for you.
8. You avoid anxiety-provoking situations
Avoidance is the sneakiest, most manipulative sign of all — and it’s hard to notice that you’re even doing it.
“Our automatic response to anxiety is to try to get rid of it, and we’ll often rationalize to ourselves why avoiding the particular situation is OK,” Khazan said.
You might decide against going to a co-worker’s birthday party because you’re “not in the mood.” You might turn down a date because he or she “isn’t your type.” You might even cancel a job interview by saying to yourself that the role “isn’t a good fit.” Avoiding the situation provides short-term relief ― but the more you avoid, the more limited your life becomes, Khazan said. If you avoid a party once, you’ll be more likely to avoid the next one, then all parties and eventually, all social situations.
The fix: Before you back out of an invite or turn down an offer, take a beat and ask yourself why, Khazan advised. Are you sincerely not interested in the opportunity, or is anxiety pressuring you to turn it down?
One way to know for sure is to consider your values: Define what is most important to you in different areas of your life, such as your work, education, family and friendships. If the opportunity doesn’t enhance your big picture, then, by all means, say no. But if it will propel you forward, ask yourself if you’re willing to experience some anxiety in order to be able to see your friends, give yourself a chance at a new job, go out on a date or whatever it may be. Once you realize that you want something more than you’re afraid of it, you’ll probably say yes.
Bottom line: You don’t have to put up with chronic anxiety. If you feel like it’s regularly interfering with your life, chat with your doctor ASAP.