How to know if you have anxiety and how to spot the signs

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting around 1 in 4 people at some point in their life.

Everyone experiences feelings of worry or nervousness from time to time. But for people living with an anxiety disorder, anxious feelings can have a significant impact on day-to-day life. If you're experiencing anxious feelings that don't go away, it's important to get help.

In this guide we talk about how to know if you have anxiety, what the signs and symptoms are and when you should ask for help.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to stress. It can feel like a churning feeling in your stomach, shortness of breath or a racing heart rate.

Feelings of anxiety are often accompanied by feelings of intense worry or fear, and may leave you feeling helpless or overwhelmed.

Everyone experiences anxious feelings from time to time. For example, when preparing for a job interview, giving a speech or experiencing big changes in your life. But for some people, the anxious feelings don't go away.

Anxiety can become a problem when you're experiencing symptoms a lot of the time, even about small things, so much so that you can't control the anxiety or find it hard to cope. An anxiety disorder can impact your ability to do everyday tasks such as going to work, keeping up with studies or visiting particular places.

Types of anxiety

There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – feeling anxious most of the time for a period of 6 months or longer. Anxious feelings may be about a range of things, such as health, money or work.
  • Social anxiety disorder – an intense fear of being embarrassed or criticised in certain situations, such as giving a speech, eating in public or doing small talk with colleagues at work. Social anxiety may cause you to avoid social situations, places or circumstances.
  • Specific phobias – feeling very fearful about a particular situation or object. You may find yourself going to big lengths to avoid the specific phobia, such as insects, injections, planes or confined spaces.
  • Panic disorder – experiencing sudden panic attacks on a regular basis. Panic attacks are intense and overwhelming episodes of anxiety, usually accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain and sweating.

Anxiety symptoms can also be present in other mental health conditions such as:

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – People living with OCD may experience unwelcome thoughts and/or compulsive behaviours that are hard or impossible to control.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – anxiety that happens after a traumatic or stressful event, or if you've experienced trauma over a long time.

How to know if you have anxiety

Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by a mental health professional. During the diagnosis, they might ask you about your symptoms and how they affect your day-to-day life.

The symptoms of anxiety can be physical, psychological and behavioural. People living with an anxiety disorder experience a range of different symptoms that affect their day to day lives.

The physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Restlessness or feeling 'on edge'
  • Muscle tension
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Stomach ache or discomfort in the stomach
  • Dry mouth or feeling thirsty all the time
  • Troubles with sleeping

Psychological symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive fear or worry
  • Catastrophising, believing your situation is worse than it is or thinking the worst outcome will happen
  • Obsessive thinking, focusing on your worries too much
  • Feeling out of control, helpless or overwhelmed
  • A racing mind or trouble 'switching off'
  • Trouble focusing or remembering things

Behavioural symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Avoiding situations that make you feel anxious
  • Finding it hard to sit still or stay calm
  • Having trouble keeping up with work, friendships and home responsibilities
  • Using drugs or alcohol to cope

When to get help

Everyone feels anxious from time to time. It can be difficult to tell the difference between feeling worried or nervous and living with an anxiety disorder.

However, if you're experiencing anxiety symptoms and feel like you can't get on top of them, it's important to reach out for help.

You should see your doctor when:

  • Your anxiety symptoms are affecting your day to day life, for example making it hard to go certain places or do certain activities.
  • Your symptoms aren't going away. If you've been experiencing anxiety symptoms every day for a couple of weeks, you should seek help.
  • Your anxiety is distressing you, is hard to control or feels overwhelming.
  • You have other health concerns. Anxiety symptoms can be linked to other health conditions. Your doctor can help you get treatment that addresses your overall health.
  • You're using substances to help you cope with your anxiety.
  • You're experiencing suicidal thoughts or self harm. Seek help immediately. Call Lifeline 13 11 14.

How is anxiety diagnosed?

Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by mental health professionals based on recognised criteria.

You may be diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder if it's affecting your ability to carry out day to day tasks such as going to work, socialising or self-care.

When you visit your doctor, they will ask about your symptoms and may give you a questionnaire to fill out.

Before going to your appointment, it might help to write down your symptoms. You could keep a symptom diary to help you explain to your doctor what you have been experiencing.

How is anxiety treated?

Your mental health professional may recommend a range of treatments, depending on the type of anxiety you have and how severe it is.

Your treatment might involve:

  • Therapy - different types of therapy can help with managing anxiety, including cognitive behavioural therapy, behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy and mindfulness. These therapies are done with a psychologist or psychiatrist and can give you tools and confidence to manage your anxiety.
  • Self-help strategies – your therapist may give you tools you can use in your everyday life to manage anxiety symptoms. Check out our guide to working with anxiety for some ideas.
  • Lifestyle changes – changes in your diet, physical activity, environment and sleep patterns may help you better manage your anxiety symptoms and triggers.
  • Medication – in some cases, a doctor may recommend medication to help manage anxiety symptoms. In most cases, anxiety medication is taken in combination with other strategies like therapy and lifestyle changes.

Support to manage anxiety

Anxiety disorders are treatable and you can recover from them. If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms, it's important to get help as soon as possible. With the right support, you'll be able to better cope with your anxiety and take steps towards recovery.

How to know if you have anxiety:

  • Speaking to your GP is a good first step
  • They can recommend you to mental health professionals such as a psychologist or psychiatrist
  • You can also speak to a counsellor on a mental health helpline such as Beyond Blue, Reach Out Australia and Lifeline

If your anxiety is making it hard to find a job or stay in work, you can get support from a disability employment assistance provider such as APM. We can help you overcome barriers you might be facing, access workplace adjustments and work towards your employment goals.

For further information about living and working with anxiety, read our guide to living with anxiety; symptoms, coping strategies, employment and supports.