The Many Faces of Anxiety: An Anxiety Symptoms Guide

When I talk about mental disorders, I find it helpful to look at the definition. In other words, what criteria would a clinician look for if they were assigning a diagnosis? Giving a list of criteria can be problematic for a variety of reasons (which we can talk about another time), but to reduce misunderstanding and even stigma, we need to know what words really mean. Words matter. So let’s look at anxiety symptoms.

According to the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) Generalized Anxiety Disorder is:

Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).

The person finds it difficult to control the worry.

The anxiety and worry are associated with three or more of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms present for more days than not for the past 6 months):

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  2. Being easily fatigued
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  4. Irritability
  5. Muscle tension
  6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep).

The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition and not better explained by another mental disorder.

What do these criteria actually look like in everyday life?

Depending on a person’s personality, genetics, environment, and a host of other factors, GAD could look like:

  • Headaches
  • Stomaches
  • Nausea
  • Chest pains
  • Increased heart rate
  • Snapping at loved ones, friends, or coworkers
  • Need for control
  • Need for order and tidiness
  • Excessive planning & preparing for planned events
  • Excessive planning & preparing for imagined scenarios that may or may not happen
  • People-pleasing
  • Overcommitting
  • Struggling to unwind
  • Procrastination
  • Working well under pressure / feeling unmotivated when not under pressure
  • Overwhelmed by decisions and/or paralysis by analysis
  • Avoiding emails and messages
  • Feeling brain fog
  • Insomnia
  • Constant busyness
  • Overthinking
  • Second-guessing and doubting yourself
  • Constant need for reassurance
  • Self-critical of “irrational” worries

Whew. It’s no wonder folks with anxiety feel misunderstood.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, I hope you’ll reach out for help with a local therapist. Try Psychology Today or ask friends for recommendations. Likewise, encourage those you love to seek help when they need it. We’re all in this together.

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