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29 Red Flags Your 'Stress' Might Mean You're Actually Living With Anxiety

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People often confuse “people struggling with anxiety” with “people who are just stressed.” And even though stress and anxiety can sometimes go hand-in-hand, people who are anxious aren’t always stressed — just like people who are stressed aren’t necessarily anxious. While you may be stressed on a busy day at work, someone with anxiety can be anxious on a “relaxing” Sunday afternoon. Anxiety doesn’t necessarily go away because a stressful trigger does.

That’s why we asked people in our Mighty mental health community who live with anxiety to tell us some “red flags” that let them know their “stress” was actually something more. Because while the words “stressed” and “anxious” are often used interchangeably, someone who is truly struggling with anxiety or an anxiety disorder might feel invalidated when we label their anxiety as stress. When we recognize the two aren’t one in the same, or that stress can sometimes, but not always, cause anxiety, we can continue to breakdown the stereotypes surrounding anxiety.

Here is what they had to say:

1. “When I kept noticing that even when stressful situations were done, I still felt that pit in my stomach like I still needed to worry. With people not struggling with anxiety, the stress ends when there is a resolution to something stressful. Not with me though.” — Heather H.

2. “Feeling my anger really flare up over anything that stressed me out, no matter how small it was — not like me at all.” — Sharon R.

3. “When I find myself getting angry about something I can’t control, it’s usually brought on by anxiety. A crowded train, a traffic jam that makes me late. I can recognize that it’s causing anxiety and use what I’ve learned through cognitive behavioral therapy to calm myself.” — Shaun S.

4. “Being easily freaked out about everything. Random body pains. Going into the bathroom every five minutes at church to look up natural anxiety remedies on my phone to try to calm myself down. Looking back at my childhood and realizing I was up most of the night, very ‘shy’ and scared to ask for anything.” — Bonny K.

5. “Realizing just how long I had been coming up with excuses to cancel social plans. Being sick all through school and constantly being in the nurse’s office or convincing my mom to let me stay home. Canceling hanging out with friends due to ‘Dad said no,’ even though I hadn’t asked him. Calling out of work for ‘family emergencies’ when I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor in time to go to work. It was like getting hit in the face with a brick realizing just how long and how often I had been avoiding dealing with it.” — Alexa K.

6. “Constant crying and shaking and uncontrolled breathing. Any screaming or fighting sets it off. My parents fought and yelled a lot due to my health when I was little. They still do and it would set my anxiety off. Now I take medicine for it when it starts to kick in. Sometimes it works, sometime it doesn’t. Lately I’ve been needing it more due to how my health has been declining. But I’m pushing through.” — Cassie S.

7. “It’s physically being short of breath, almost like the moment catches my breath and catches me by surprise. My heart will start racing and I can’t calm it down even with slower breathing since it obviously should be a fix to the physical symptom. Another red flag is when I feel a drastic change in body temperature. I’ll feel incredibly hot in my face and then intense anxiousness takes over shortly after. Or my hands and feet will get really cold, I’ll break into a cold sweat and usually, a panic attack follows.” — April D.

8. “I realized my perception of myself and the world around me was based around anxiety. I got to a point where I was so used to being anxious that I didn’t realize I was avoiding certain activities because of anxiety. It took me a long time to realize just how anxious I actually was.” — Jamie L.

9. “Going to class would make me physically sick every morning. I’d purposely get to campus early just so I could spend 20 or so minutes in the bathroom trying to get over my stomach being in knots. I couldn’t eat until after I’d left campus, which usually meant I would go hours without eating. I would end up in frustrated — tears just doing simple assignments. If I was under any sort of stress, I would be super angry all the time, constantly lashing out at everyone. I could barely even go into a public place when I was at this point. I ended up going to student counseling for stress management and came out with an anxiety diagnoses. Therapy has been a God-send for me.” — Haley B.

10. “When I take way too long to groom myself before going to an important event or party. Experience taught me it means I actually don’t want to go and a panic attack is on its way if I insist on going.” — Livia S.

11. “When I found myself worrying about things that even sounded ridiculous to me, but I couldn’t stop it. For example, worrying about what I looked like as I walked to someone’s car! I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t stop worrying about it. Little things like that are even a big deal to me when they shouldn’t be.” — Amy W.

12. “I didn’t develop anxiety until after I had kids. I realized it was more than stress when my son and I didn’t leave the house for close to three weeks straight because I couldn’t quiet the ‘what ifs.’” — Breanna N.

13. “Feeling like giving up on everything and not wanting to talk to anyone one minute, then the next minute feeling unstoppable and like a different person. I’ve always struggled with severe mood swings, but the highs and lows are very extreme. I also used to withdraw socially as a child and similarly to others, I used to spend countless mornings throwing up before school. The doctors had no idea what was wrong and anxiety wasn’t really a diagnosis back in 1999. I’m so glad that mental health is being taken seriously now and all of the ‘red flags’ finally make sense now. I can see that many others can relate and have struggled with similar symptoms.” — Carly M.

14. “When it started triggering asthma attacks. So bad I’ve had to go to the hospital because I could barely breathe and my heart felt worse than it does normally. I had to start figuring out if it was worth my energy and physical health, so I’ve started to keep away from things I know are going to stress me out. And if they can’t be avoided, I take things slowly. Or at least try to. Some things you can’t get away from and I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try to push through it.” — Julie G.

15. “The feeling of impending doom being so strong that I believed the next negative thing that came around the corner, no matter how small, it would knock me down and I’d never get back up again.” — Amy T.

16. “Throwing up every morning and not eating. I know the difference between morning sickness and anxious puking. Most days I can’t even wake up without feeling nauseous because of ‘life.’” — Jackie D.

17. “When I realized I had these small routines — I followed nothing special or big, but every time they got altered it would throw everything off and I would get irritable and feel anxious because I felt like I was no longer in control of my world.” — Tammy Z.

18. “Waking up with physical symptoms of anxiety most days was one of them. I came to realize these symptoms were present from the moment I opened my eyes and before I had the time to think about anything at all. Other important ‘red flags’ were the intensity and frequency of the symptoms, as well as the way it affected my daily activities. I felt incapable, lazy and guilty. I was always afraid, everything was ‘stressful’ and I was a master of avoidance, even of the most banal things such as going out to get the mail or passing by someone when walking on the street. I always needed someone to push me in order to do what I had to do, the kind of things you need to do to survive and be a rightful citizen.” — Alexandra M.

19. “My bottom lip goes numb, sometimes my whole lower jaw. My whole body or just the upper half is trembling uncontrollably. Having to force myself to eat at least one snack or meal throughout an entire day because I ‘don’t feel hungry’ (when normally I am constantly eating). Or I’m super nauseous (I haven’t thrown up since I was 17, I’m 26 now).  When I have light anxiety I stutter badly. When it’s a short but intense attack, my heart is pounding hard enough you physically see how hard, or my chest can feel heavy like I’m being squished and it’s hard to talk.” — Jessica D.

20. “When I stopped caring about school and was ready to give up because nothing felt worthwhile anymore. I talked about it to one of my professors and she suggested I make an appointment with the school’s counseling service. After some time (and work), getting out of bed felt less insurmountable and leaving the house became less terrifying. I still feel like an imposter a lot of the time, but I’m at least functional.” — Lina N.

21. “Pulling my hair out, scratching my scalp raw, picking at scabs obsessively, chewing my lip and cheeks, fidgeting/losing focus for several minutes at a time and insane gastrointestinal issues. These physical symptoms are always accompanied with the racing, irrational, anxious thoughts and panic. I would get stomachaches just thinking about placing a phone call and would pray it went to voicemail so I wouldn’t be on the spot.” — Megan B.

22. “When I’d have to prepare myself to go to the grocery store by sitting in the driveway in my car for 15 minutes trying not to hyperventilate. My newborn daughter would be asleep in the back seat and after many attempts to go down the road and head for the store, I’d always end up putting the car in reverse and head back to the house. I was fed up by that point and knew I needed help.” — Rachel C.

23. “When I take it out on others. I know I shouldn’t, but I get angry and mean when I am not in control of my body and emotions. If I have to ask for help above my norm or have to show my vulnerability in public I turn to anger to cover the fear. There’s a certain frustration that can’t be explained to those who don’t struggle themselves or don’t struggle in the same way you do. It’s in that frustration that my anxiety manifests as other emotions.” — Aimee D.

24. “Twitching. My eyes, eyelids, upper lip or eyebrow become very fatigued and begin to twitch when I’m about to have a panic, which inevitably makes it worse.” — Bailey S.

25. “My brain feels like an old TV on a static channel. I feel like my entire body is filled with static — I want to turn it off. Which in turn, turning it off, making it stop, would mean taking my life. Please, make it stop.” — Susan S.

26. “The energy I get. I can’t stay still. I feel like I need to be constantly moving. Then I know anxiety will shortly follow.” — Brandi M.

27. “I got so upset with how I handled a conversation at work that I punched a file cabinet. After that, I immediately left work and went for a drive. All these thoughts flew threw my head and I couldn’t shut them up. Besides the usual ‘you’re not good enough’ and ‘everyone hates you,’ I also thought, ‘You should just keep driving. They’d all be better off without you.’ That’s when I really knew I needed help.” — Jeffrey C.

28. “When I started to feel it in my chest. I struggled to stand up straight and breathing was labored. That was it, and I scheduled an appointment the next day.” — Michael B.

29. “If I’m fixated on something, like I become obsessed that the car is going to break down. I can’t stop questioning it even when I’m reassured.” — Sarah L.

Can you relate?

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: October 26, 2017
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