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Stress or Anxiety: How Do You Know?

Reading time | 4 mins

As a mental health activist I get many questions – on social media, my blog and whenever I speak at events. One of the most common questions that I’m asked is: “How do I know if I have anxiety?”

While everyone experiences anxiety as an emotion at some point in their lives, they are usually referring to the prolonged and diagnosable definition of anxiety as a medical condition.

My answer to this question is a lengthy one. Despite having lived with social anxiety for over a decade, I didn’t realise that I had it until it hit me in the chest (quite literally, it felt) at the age of 25.

You’d like to think that an educated woman -  with two degrees - would’ve realised the ‘weird quirks’ she’d been experiencing were actually signs of a bigger problem: The sleepless nights, the tremors in my hands, and the inability to stop analysing every situation and always presuming the worst. At one point I’d replay every previous conversation in my head, looking for ‘mistakes,’ or signs that a person didn’t like me. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t stop.

Understanding anxiety is real

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand anxiety as a concept and therefore had no idea what was wrong with me! Rather than having a real condition, I believed that I was just weak and damaged in some way. However, in December 2012 - as I clutched my chest waiting for my heart to ‘explode’ -  I knew that this was real.

The doctor diagnosed me in under two minutes: “Textbook acute social anxiety”, she summarised as I gazed at her blankly. I’d heard that word, ‘anxiety’ on TV before but I didn’t actually think it was a real thing.

Thankfully, in recent years, widespread mental health education by the likes of organisations including Mind and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) have made key disorders relatively mainstream in the UK. Anxiety is now commonly understood as being a genuine condition.

In saying this however, with the increased stresses of daily life, how do you clarify what you are really experiencing? How can you differentiate everyday stress from an anxiety disorder

Stress vs. anxiety

I spoke to Amy Fraser, an administrator from Rotherhithe in England. Amy was reluctant to talk to her doctor about her symptoms, because she presumed that she was just experiencing stress.

“I’d been struggling at work for a while, and along with feeling overworked, I noticed that I was more emotional than usual and I worried about small things for days. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and couldn’t catch my breath. The intrusive thoughts triggered by anxiety have a way of tricking the individual into believing that the symptoms they’re experiencing aren’t real. I thought that everybody must feel this way at work and that maybe I just couldn’t cope as well as others. I didn’t want to trouble the doctor.”

Consultant Psychiatrist and contributing author to The Female Mind, Lynne M Drummond’s research mirrors Amy’s experience, stating that “Generalised Anxiety Disorder is diagnosed when there is a troublesome increase in anxiety that interferes with a person getting on with her life.”

In summary, if the symptoms that you are experiencing – whether they are physical, mental or emotional -  are having an impact on your daily life on a continued basis, then it might be time to discuss this with your doctor.

Let’s put it this way, if you had a cough for more than three weeks, you’d go and see the doctor. Mental wellbeing is exactly the same.

Understanding your own anxiety symptoms

If you’re unsure what you are experiencing, here are some common signs that you might have an anxiety disorder:

  • Physical symptoms such as: heart palpitations, breathlessness, nausea, dizziness, fatigue headaches, excessive sweating, blushing, and tremors. A change in appetite and difficulty sleeping are also common.  
  • Emotional symptoms such as: feeling ‘on edge’, or as though something bad is about to happen. Difficulty concentrating and staying alert, and feeling irritable and more prone to outbursts or also common signs.

How to talk to your doctor about your anxiety

If you, like me, have experienced any of the above symptoms then I would recommend having a chat with your doctor. Even at the moment, there are options to telephone the doctor or even do a skype call if you feel you can’t cope.

Here are my tip tops on how to get the most out of your conversation:

  • Make a list of all the symptoms that you are experiencing in advance

Write these down on paper and bring it to the appointment. Talking to a stranger about a mental health condition can feel overwhelming but having a list to keep yourself on track is really useful.

  • Make sure you have enough time

Most doctor’s appointments are about ten minutes long. However, in many surgeries it is possible to book a double appointment. It’s important to go into detail, especially if this is the first time you have discussed a mental health condition.

  • Be honest!

Anxiety is a recognised condition and the more the doctor knows about your experience, the easier it will be to diagnose. You wouldn’t be embarrassed about a cough or broken bone, so treat your mental health condition with the same respect.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions

The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) encourages patients to ask why a certain treatment is being offered and whether there are other things that could help.

The takeaway

Remember, ultimately, you understand yourself better than anyone else does. So, if your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, spare a moment to listen. Anxiety is a very real condition and it’s important to get the help you need.

UK/MED/20/0076 March 2020