3 Signs You're Anxious & Don't Know It, According To A Psychologist

Photo: Natalie Allen

If you’d told my younger self I was anxious, I would have laughed and told you you were overreacting. To me, anxiety was associated with the image of a person chewing their nails down, hiding under the duvet, unable to face the world. I was functioning, so that persistent body ache had to be part of aging, right?

Then I learned about high-functioning anxiety. High-functioning anxiety means you appear to be functioning and believe you are functioning well, but you’re really experiencing anxiety. Let's get real here for a second: Anxiety is part of the human experience, even more so in the fast-paced rat race where the demands on our time and energy seem never-ending.

The good news? Learning about the ways you are anxious helps you to redesign your life so you perform better and sustainably, as well as rejuvenate yourself. That, to me, is a win-win.

Here are three signs that you're anxious and don't know it:

1. You have a busy mind.

Even if you can’t identify with the term "anxiety," you may resonate with the words "busy mind"—especially if your mind cannot shut up no matter what you try, to the point where even mindfulness classes frustrate you.

My clients fall into the camps of those with poor sleep and those who fall asleep soundly because they are so tired. However, the commonality is that they wake up feeling fatigued and unrefreshed because they’re tense even while asleep. Another telltale sign of a busy mind is when you find it difficult to concentrate—for example, you can read a book for only five minutes before getting distracted.

The busy mind often happens when you find yourself obsessively going over the last conversation you’ve had or email you’ve sent, judging yourself for every possible minute way you’ve gone wrong. Indeed, many people with busy minds set relentlessly high standards for themselves, otherwise known as perfectionism. When preoccupied with their real or perceived mistakes, it is difficult to engage with life and the people who matter, which then prompts guilt and shame.

2. You have a busybody.

The mind-body link is nothing new. Try hunching your back and shrinking yourself to occupy as little space as possible. Then examine how you feel. Chances are, you’re feeling tense. This is because your brain picks up signals similar to how our ancestors would hide themselves away in the evolutionary environment. Your brain therefore sends signals to your body to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which kick off the feelings of distress and anxiety. Similarly, your body reacts to the mind when it picks up signals of feeling anxious.

A common "busybody" symptom my clients report is a throbbing in their solar plexus area. The ancient traditions associate this chakra with our sense of power, and anxiety is all about a crippling uncertainty about the future. Otherwise, you may be familiar with panic attacks, which mental health professionals regard as a form of anxiety disorder.

Panic attacks are characterized by a racing heart, trembling limbs, hyperventilation, and feeling extremely hot, as well as beliefs like, "People will laugh at me," "I am trapped," and, "I am going to die." They feel like an onslaught of physical chaos has been hurled at them. However, in my professional and personal experience, the main thought you have during a panic attack is often your mind’s clue to tell you what needs to change in your life.

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3. Busy behaviors.

It is normal to check if we’ve locked our doors and windows and turned off the stove or iron. However, when this checking starts to take over our sanity and lives, to the point where it occupies a lot of time and mental energy and when we feel as if we cannot trust ourselves, then these busy behaviors need addressing. What underlies obsessive-compulsive behaviors are, as its name suggests, obsessive beliefs that need to be soothed by engaging in compulsive behaviors.

These thoughts stem from different sources. Do any of the below resonate with you?

  • An inflated sense of responsibility: "I need to perform [action] so [person] will not get hurt."
  • Overestimating threat: "If I don’t check the stove again, the house will burn down."
  • Perfectionism: "If I don’t go over my last email, I’ll never improve and will lose my job."
  • Unable to tolerate uncertainty: "Unless I am 200 percent certain, I cannot move on with my day!"

The truth is, your busy mind, body, and behaviors serve a function for you. They exist to protect you, possibly during a time when things were difficult and this was how you learned to cope. Over time, they became habits, fed by constant repetition, just as muscles bulk up from constant working out. Even then, when we are fraught with "busy," we live smaller than we should, unable to engage fully with life and the people who matter.

I understand that there's some stigma around anxiety. Nobody wants to say, "I’m an anxious person" or "I’m experiencing anxiety." But what if you saw anxiety as an invitation to release what no longer serves you? If you throw out expired food from your fridge, then you may want to consider throwing out long-expired beliefs, rituals, and habits associated with "busy."

Want to learn more about how anxiety works? Here are five techniques that will help you crush anxiety.

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