Between the constant messages in the news warning us of doom and gloom and an ever-increasing number of professional and personal obligations, life today is as stressful and anxiety-provoking as ever. Experiencing some stress and anxiety is not only normal but can be useful in small doses (e.g., keeping us alert, focused and ready to take action). Unfortunately, an increasing number of people report finding it so difficult to control stress and anxiety that it causes significant distress and interferes with their ability to function. 

Spike in anxiety

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests the prevalence of anxiety disorders in the United States may be as high as 18 percent of the population over the age of 18 (roughly 40 million adults). Additionally, in 2015, the New York Times reported that anxiety had surpassed depression as the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem among college students, with more than 50 percent of students visiting campus clinics reporting anxiety.

While stress and anxiety are technically not the same thing, many people use the terms interchangeably, in part because they are often experienced together and in part because they tend to have a similar impact on our bodies. Most importantly, both can have serious effects on our mental and even medical health if they persist chronically at high levels (e.g., gastrointestinal conditions, chronic respiratory disorders and heart disease). As a result, it is important to learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety — as well as how to manage them. Failing to do so could lead to a significant impact on your mental and medical health.

“Unfortunately, a sizeable number of people (estimated at approximately 30 percent) with chronic stress and anxiety go through life untreated.”

Telltale signs

Experts have identified over 100 symptoms of anxiety and stress, which are often grouped into several categories, including: physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, headaches, upset stomach, frequent urination, shaking or trembling, tingling sensations, dry mouth, clenching of the jaw and/or grinding of the teeth and decreased energy and libido (i.e., sexual desire); emotional symptoms, such as increased nervousness and moodiness, difficulty relaxing and feeling more easily agitated, frustrated and overwhelmed; cognitive symptoms, such as racing thoughts, decreased attention and concentration, increased forgetfulness, constant worry and pessimism about the future, lower self-esteem and thoughts of life being not worth living; and finally behavioral symptoms, such as procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities, increased fidgeting and pacing, increased nail biting and feet tapping, frequent sighing, increased arguments or snapping at others, changes in appetite (could be an increase or decrease), changes in sleep (often insomnia, but could also be hypersomnia) and increased use of alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.

Getting help

Unfortunately, a sizeable number of people (estimated at approximately 30 percent) with chronic stress and anxiety go through life untreated. If you think you might fall into this category, you should seek help from a mental health professional, especially if you find the symptoms persisting after physical causes have been ruled out. These symptoms are highly treatable using certain evidence-based talk therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and/or medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  An excellent resource for more information is the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.