K. J. Bagnall

Writer. Editor. Illustrator. Mental Health Activist. Christian.

How Anxiety Can Look And Feel: Symptoms You May Not Know


Over the last few years, anxiety disorders have become more accepted, more understood. But so much and so many symptoms are yet unknown to the general public — even unknown to sufferers themselves.

Anxiety takes many different forms. The symptoms below aren’t an exhaustive list, but may offer an insight for those seeing anxiety from the outside, and those in the midst of its grip.

Symptoms To Look Out For

The following symptoms are noticeable to a bystander. Though often, if they can, an anxious person will try to hide their symptoms. But if you pay attention, you can pick them up and take steps to help them.

If after an hour the anxiety is not subsiding, give them something calming such as camomile, and get them to see a GP as soon as they can. (A note on camomile: hide the taste by mixing it with other non-caffeinated flavours such as lemongrass, lavender or peppermint.)

Image via Pixabay, colour edited

Talking Quickly

Everyone talks quickly from time to time, often when they’re excited or worried. But sometimes an anxious person will talk quickly for no apparent reason. Basically, their anxiety is firing off.

Often it’s hard for the anxious person themselves to notice this symptom. Talking quickly is a byproduct of thinking quickly, and when caught up in rapidly-firing neurons, fast-paced speaking seems normal-paced.

It’s helpful to gently point out to an anxious person if they are talking excessively quickly. That then acts as a cue for them to try calm their body down.

Fiddling, Tapping and Fidgeting

It probably isn’t surprising that fiddling with objects (or even just your fingers), tapping and fidgeting are signs of anxiety. Often people with anxiety disorders are more aware of these habits than the average person who feels anxiety normally. So they will be more practiced at hiding these symptoms.

When anxiety heightens, often the anxious person will get quickly bored of a particular tap or fiddle. If you see someone alternating abruptly between, say, twisting hair, tapping the bench and readjusting their seat or feet, then their anxiety is probably quite high.

Eyes Darting Around

Most understand that, when anxious, it’s hard to hold eye contact with anyone. When anxiety increases it becomes difficult to keep their gaze on anything for more than a few seconds.

Photo by Maxwell GS

Anxiety makes your body think there is danger somewhere. And so you become hypervigilant, eyes moving to the next spot and the next looking for the danger. The anxious person may not realise this, but they do experience an overwhelming urge to constantly look somewhere else and somewhere else again.

Escaping Stimulus

Often anxiety causes a person to withdraw, because there is too much information for their brain to handle. Conversations, crowded areas, cluttered rooms, irregular noises and strong smells are just some things an anxious person will try escape.

The best thing to do in this situation is help them get to somewhere with less stimulus and / or get them to focus on a single stimuli. Music through headphones can sometimes be good, or even the pattern on a table top.

Sometimes they are also struggling to look at one spot for very long, as mentioned in the previous section. In this case, still encourage them to focus on a single stimuli, but maybe change the stimuli to focus on when you see them struggling. Often in this situation you will need to help them just ride out the anxiety.

Symptoms You May Experience

The following symptoms are noticeable mainly to the anxious person. If you notice these symptoms in yourself, take steps to lower your anxiety such as meditated breathing, muscle relaxation, CBT and / or mindfulness.

Irregular Breathing or Heart Rate

If you find yourself breathing as if you’d just run several metres, that is a symptom of anxiety. You may also experience a pounding, fluttering or racing heart beat. Meditated breathing is usually the best response in this situation.

Photo by Chinter Meyer

Difficulty Concentrating

In times of high anxiety, it becomes difficult to focus on something. Often this is because your brain is travelling so fast, it’s already on the next random topic before you’ve finished your thought. Making decisions aside from the possible urge to escape can be very difficult.

With very high anxiety, it can be a rather novel an unsettling experience. You may not feel totally connected to your body, which is all running at different speeds. You may think about calming your anxiety, but the thought has no real substance or power amidst the torrent of other thoughts.

Often the best thing to do in this situation is get a trusted person to help you focus and calm down, or, if necessary, see a GP.

Very Short Term Memory Loss

Even though anxiety makes you hypervigilant, it is difficult to retain details. When having a conversation, you may easily and frequently loose track of the topic. Or completely forget what was said a moment ago. You may struggle to read a paragraph, unable to hold the information of the first sentence in your mind as you read the second.

You may feel lost, unbalanced or dizzy in a world full of stimulus that your brain is taking in and subconscious is processing, while your conscious has very little idea what is happening around you.

Photo by Son of Groucho, colour edited

Feeling Physically Ill

Anxiety can be accompanied by a range of flu-like symptoms. These include nausea, headaches, feeling flushed or cold, shaking, change in appetite, exhaustion, and dizziness. The intensity of these symptoms will increase as the anxiety increases.


As unpleasant as all the listed symptoms are, remember they are temporary, you can get through them. Being able to notice and recognise anxiety symptoms is important. The act as cues to yourself and others, so that you engage in anxiety-reducing activities and habits.

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