Anxiety disorders represent the most common mental illnesses present in the United States today. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 40 million adults over the age of 18 are affected every year. That is 18% of the national population! As many as 25% of American adults having an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime. The physical symptoms of anxiety disorders can become rapidly apparent.

Predictably, anxiety disorders have not been spared from the stigmatization of mental health. Rather than being treated as inherently dangerous or uncontrollable, people with anxiety disorders regularly face apathy and even scorn, as the remaining majority of the population refuse to validate the condition. The combination of social perceptions and the lack of access to affordable medical care for many patients with mental health disorders has resulted in less than 37% of people with anxiety disorders receiving treatment for their condition.

Mental Health and the Body

Indeed, an anxiety disorder is primarily a mental health issue. But this classification can be misleading. The Australian National Survey of Mental Health Literacy and Stigma found that the mental nature of anxiety disorders deeply affected popular perceptions. Most of those surveyed refused to believe that it was a real medical condition. Indeed, they posited that anxiety disorders were reflective of “personal weakness.”

In reality, any person who has experienced one of these disorders can tell you that it isn’t as simple as “snap[ping] out of it.” The brain and body are completely intertwined. A person suffering from an anxiety disorder isn’t merely dealing with negative thoughts and fears. They are battling an entire host of physical symptoms of anxiety disorders that further complicate the existing situation.

It is important to note that an entire range of anxiety orders exist, and some have very particular physical tells. The purpose of this article is not to diagnose a specific anxiety disorder but to help you recognize the general physical symptoms. If you or someone close to you is consistently demonstrating behaviors or symptoms consistent with an anxiety disorder, your next move is to seek/encourage professional diagnosis and treatment. Contact Cognitive Behavior Associates for professional help and a personalized treatment plan.

Recognizing the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

When it comes to anxiety, there is a long list of possible symptoms. Some of these are emotional, but even they are often expressed in physiological terms.

Here are the ten most common physical symptoms to pay attention to if you suspect that you or someone close to you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. These include:

  • Chronic symptoms, which generally affect the person daily
  • Triggered responses, which usually occur during an attack

Chronic Symptoms:

  • Insomnia or Intermittent Sleep: Difficulty sleeping is a common symptom of an anxiety disorder. But not all people experience conventional insomnia. Some will wake up throughout the night, preventing adequate rest.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: In most cases, the mind seems to revert to the source of the anxiety. This prevents long periods of concentration on other subjects.
  • Regularly Avoiding Triggers: This is purposefully vague, as triggers can vary widely based on the diagnosis and source of anxiety. Pay attention to those who regularly seem to want to avoid crowds, loud atmospheres, or other specific stimuli. If they become agitated, try having a more open conversation about how those situations make them feel and make your support clear.

Triggered Responses:

  • Uncontrollable Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Elevated Heart Rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Nausea
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Fainting

For the most part, when a person has a triggered response, you will notice several of these symptoms simultaneously. Please refer to our guide on how to help someone who is having a panic attack to learn more about what you can do to help without causing additional harm. Always be careful and understanding. An anxiety disorder can make someone feel isolated. By providing compassionate help, you can make a difference.

Although they aren’t necessarily common, panic disorders affect between 2 and 3% of all American adults. In fact, 4.7% of American adults will experience a panic attack during their lifetime. These statistics are markedly higher for adults in their late teens to early twenties and doubled for women. For friends and family, it is important to know how to help someone having a panic attack.

Due to the concentration of cases in these demographics, the reality is that you probably know someone who has or currently does suffer from a panic disorder. In order to do what you can for them in the event of an attack, you must be able to recognize a panic attack and respond effectively.

What to Look For

The symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person. In some minor cases, they are almost indiscernible if you don’t know what to look for because the most common symptoms are mainly internal. Mental Health First Aid warns that panic attacks can manifest in several ways. The following list comprises the most common symptoms.

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Chest Pain
  • Abdominal Distress
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Fear of “going crazy” or dying
  • Chills and Hot Flashes
  • Feeling Choked
  • Feeling Faint
  • Feeling that you are detached from reality

Given the nature of these symptoms, a bystander is only likely to notice general physical and emotional distress. You may note that they are breathing heavily or look visibly confused. Unfortunately, these symptoms could be associated with a long list of other medical conditions.
Therefore, your first priority is to assess the situation to establish what the person is going through.

Assessing the Situation

Differentiating a panic attack from a medical situation that requires emergency help can be difficult, so your ability to assess the situation will rely on your ability to communicate clearly and concisely. A person in the throes of a panic attack will only be able to process small amounts of information at a time. All of their internal systems are in over-drive, so you will need to be patient.

Ask and Listen

Start by asking short, basic questions.

  • “Has this happened before?” Wait for a response. Try a different question if you get no answer.
  • “Do you want an ambulance?”
  • “Have you been feeling stressed?”

Your goal is to figure out if they know what is happening to them and if they require emergency help. Regardless of whether you end up calling 911, you will need to manage the situation until the attack has passed or the ambulance arrives.

Managing the Attack

Your last question should always be, “What might help you?” If they need to be moved away from a crowd or sat down, offer aid. Once they’re settled, stop asking questions. Instead, provide gentle assurance. Stay calm, talk slowly, and help them to focus on their breathing by encouraging them to count to ten with you.

On average, the longest attacks can last between 20 and 30 minutes, but most panic attacks will only last 5 to 10 minutes. During this time, stay with them to ensure continuity and support while they recover.

After the Attack

Once the attack has passed, it is important to show that you genuinely care for their well-being. See if they need you to call someone to pick them up, and encourage them to reach out to a medical professional regarding their attacks.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be used to teach patients how to recognize their triggers and manage their symptoms. In ten weekly sessions, the “Panic No More” program at Cognitive Behavior Associates will help patients to restructure their reactions to common anxiety behaviors and address avoidance behaviors.