What Is Anxiety & When Should I Get Help?

A lot of times we hear the word “anxiety” used interchangeable with “worry.” It’s true that anxiety has a lot in common with worry and often involves feeling worried, but anxiety is more than that. People who frequently experience high levels of anxiety will often notice changes in the way they think, the way they feel (both emotionally and physically), and the way they interact with people and tasks.  This kind of anxiety can become a roadblock to living a healthy, happy life.  

So how do you tell if what you’re experiencing is the kind of anxiety that’s getting in your way?  Here are a few areas to think about:

Physical Signs of Anxiety

High levels of anxiety can cause a variety of physical symptoms:

Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC • Individual Therapy in Cambridge, MA


•Rapid heart rate







•Shakiness or jitters

•Tight muscles

•Neck and shoulder pain

•Trouble breathing

•Tight feeling in chest

Many of these can also be caused by other things, and on their own they aren’t usually enough to say for sure that someone is experiencing strong anxiety.  However, symptoms like these with no medical or physical explanation are a sign that anxiety might be in play.

Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC • Individual Therapy in Cambridge, MA

If you experience a lot of these symptoms, or experience a few of them frequently, one way to learn more about whether they are connected to anxiety is to start keeping track of them in a journal or on your phone.  Note when you experience each symptom, how strong it feels on a scale of 1-10, and any major things going on around that time (stressful things that happened at work or at home, things you were worrying about that day, conflicts with friends or family that cropped up around that time, etc).  Over time, see if you notice a pattern of how these physical signs relate to what’s going on in your life.  A strong correlation between worrisome or stressful events in your life and physical symptoms on this list suggests these may be a sign of anxiety.

Mental Signs of Anxiety

Worry - lots and lots of worry - is the classic mental hallmark of anxiety.  People with high levels of anxiety often experience persistent or near-constant worrying, often running “in the background” while they try to get through their day.  These worries are frequently about things that objectively aren’t all that worrisome or don’t have particularly serious consequences.   For example, you might find yourself worrying constantly about whether you’re going to be fired when your boss hasn’t given any indication she’s displeased with your performance.  Or you might worry a lot about forgetting to respond to a work email when sending it a day late wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC • Individual Therapy in Cambridge, MA

Often the worry people experience when they’re highly anxious seems to go in circles or run “on repeat” - the same worries keep swirling through the mind, over and over again, and nothing seems to quiet them down.  This can take the form of overthinking things that aren’t particularly complicated.  Sometimes this makes it difficult to make decisions, as the overthinking keeps you from accurately evaluating your options.

Noticing a change in your memory, especially short-term memory, can be a sign of rising anxiety levels.  It’s normal to forget where you put your keys sometimes, especially if you’re multitasking as you set them down - when we don’t pay attention to these little things, they’re harder to remember.  Finding it’s more difficult than usual to remember things can be a sign of anxiety, though.

Many people with high anxiety levels experience insomnia caused by these swirling thoughts.  They often feel as though their mind won’t calm down even when their body is exhausted.  Lying awake at night worrying or waking up in the middle of the night worrying are a good indicator that you might be experiencing high anxiety levels.

Interacting With the Outside World

Some other signs of high anxiety levels relate to the way we interact with the rest of the world when we feel highly anxious.  These include:

•Avoiding tasks, events, or people.  This might be due to feeling anxious or out of fear that we will feel anxious.  Sometimes it stems from a fear of being judged or found inadequate if we go through with the task or event.

•Procrastinating on various tasks.  We tend to simply think of ourselves as “lazy” or disorganized when we procrastinate, but often procrastination is the mind’s way of trying to avoid things that cause it to feel highly anxious.

•Feeling unusually irritable or impatient.  It’s hard to be in a good mood with others when you’re awash in anxiety.

Panic Attacks

A panic attack or anxiety attack is a period of acute, intense anxiety that often feels overwhelming.  It involves a combination of physical symptoms and anxious thoughts.

Physical symptoms of a panic attack include:

Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC • Individual Therapy in Cambridge, MA

•Difficulty breathing or hyperventilating

•Rapid or pounding heartbeat

•Tunnel vision or blurred vision

•Sinking or sick feeling in stomach

•Feeling dizzy or shaky

•Tingling sensations

•Feeling faint or weak

•Clammy hands or sweaty palms

•Dry mouth

Anxious thoughts that can occur during a panic attack include:

•“I can’t breathe”

•”I’m going to die”

•”I’m having a heart attack”

•”This will never end”

•”I’m going crazy”

•”I’m going blind”

•”I must be sick/have a brain tumor/be having a stroke”

•”Something terrible is about to happen”

Panic attacks feel like they’re going to last forever, but in reality they are typically quite brief, perhaps only a minute or two long.  They can be quite frightening while they’re occurring but they aren’t physically dangerous.  

Some people with high anxiety levels have chronic panic attacks, some have occasional panic attacks, and others never have one.  Even if you have regular panic attacks, it is possible to learn ways to manage them so they aren’t as frightening and disruptive and don’t recur as often.  You can read more about how to cope with a panic attack here.

Help For Anxiety

Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC • Individual Counseling in Cambridge, MA

About 18% of American adults experience high levels of anxiety in any given year - so if you recognize yourself in this post you can rest assured that you are not alone. 

If some of the anxiety symptoms discussed here are getting in the way of living the kind of life you want to live, then it might be time to get some professional support to help you move forward and create a life with less anxiety.  Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people see therapists, and the good news is that we know a whole lot about anxiety and how to treat it. 

You can read more here about my approach to treating anxiety.  If you’d like to talk with me directly about working together to develop a plan for you to address your anxiety, feel free to contact me here to set up a time to talk.