How To Explain Anxiety To Someone: What It Is And What Causes It

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life, but anxiety symptoms can differ from person to person and we can often wonder how to explain anxiety to those around us.

When anxiety lingers, it can cause more than just a feeling of nervousness. It can be overwhelming and persistent, a nagging feeling that can affect many facets of everyday life.

It may seem like overreacting to others or that the person experiencing it is exaggerating a temporary feeling that will go away once they are calm.

Many struggle to understand what it feels like to have anxiety and have an anxiety disorder that makes them feel trapped, scared, exhausted, and even depressed.

So, how do we explain anxiety to others who might not completely understand what we are going through?

First, let’s define what anxiety is.

What is anxiety?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

This means anxiety is not just mental but a physical feeling as well. It’s a feeling that can overcome you at any moment and can ultimately be triggered by both “big” and “small” events.

Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety affects the body and the mind. Here are some common symptoms of those that experience anxiety:

  • Increased pulse/racing pulse
  • Chest tightness
  • Nausea or stomach aches
  • Sweating
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

What causes anxiety?

Life experiences can trigger anxiety, but it is not always pinpointed to a certain event or cause. When we start to struggle with these events is when anxiety develops.

An upcoming school test, a meeting with your boss, moving house, or problems with your friends causes anxiety to seep into your thoughts and affect your mental health.

These feelings of fear and stress can develop quickly into a disorder that is hard to shake.

Related: Fear vs Anxiety: Understand the Difference and Overcome Them

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety may occur outside of an established trigger or event. It can be classified as an anxiety disorder if it is recurring and causes physical symptoms of increased heart rate, blood pressure, or nausea.

Those with anxiety disorders often have trouble relating to others that they are struggling with because it can be known as an invisible illness.


  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating or sleeping
  • restlessness
  • an overwhelming sense of worry
  • increased heart rate
  • elevated blood pressure

Anxiety feels like irritability, restlessness etc, everyone experiences it on occasion, so your loved ones can understand

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder is associated with anxiety that occurs persistently and actively, most importantly during everyday tasks such as cleaning or watching TV.

The anxiety can be described as feeling out of control and overwhelming. GAD can also cause the health or physical state of the person to decline.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is when the anxiety a person feels rises quickly and reaches a peak, leading to what most of us know as panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by sudden onsets of terror or apprehension and can last for hours.

Social anxiety

Social anxiety can show in those who have an insurmountable fear of rejection or judgment from others. It can keep those affected by it from socializing properly, which means avoiding the public or others altogether.

High functioning anxiety

Not everyone with an anxiety disorder is characterized by the things they cannot do. Those with high functioning anxiety appear to be fine on the outside but are wholly not.

People with this anxiety disorder find themselves being propelled forward by their worries rather than experiencing their fears holding them back.

They may have a “Type A” personality-they are always on time, detail-oriented and active, and every office worker’s dream. They can even be a generally outgoing and friendly person, rather than shying away from public interaction.

However, on the inside, they are fighting with their inner critic because they fear failure and disappointment.

One downside of high functioning anxiety is that because the person is somewhat successful in their endeavors and doesn’t seem overly anxious or worried, they are deemed “normal” and do not need help for their mental condition.

Other anxiety disorders

There are even some anxiety disorders that show in children, such as:

Selective mutism

Selective mutism is a form of anxiety in which the child is only mute in some cases, such as in school or in front of strangers.

This phenomenon may happen to even the most socially bright children and has been suggested as an aggravated case of social anxiety. It can follow the person into adulthood if not treated when they are younger.

Separation anxiety disorder

Separation anxiety occurs when a person (or child) is separated from the thing that provides them a general sense of relief or comfort-it can be a person, a belonging, etc. The feelings of anxiety can become so intense that it then shifts into a form of a panic attack.

Separation anxiety is normal within children aged 0-2, but if it continues to persist past those ages and affects school life, it can be within reason to seek professional help.

Related: Differences Between Stress and Anxiety: Symptoms, Treatments and Relief

Being anxious vs. having an anxiety disorder

It’s important to point out that normal anxiety is common and is usually triggered by a stressor. We feel anxious from time to time when we are put in uncommon situations or events that have big outcomes, such as an interview, a test, meeting your date for the first time, etc.

The intensity and length of anxiety versus an anxiety disorder differ greatly. While anxiety usually appears before the event and dissipates after it, a person with an anxiety disorder could feel anxiety symptoms for weeks, possibly even months, before and after the event.

For example, if the person is a nervous tester, that’s quite normal and justifiable for them to be jittery before they sit down to begin. However, if they haven’t been able to sleep for weeks after the test because they fear the outcome, that can mean something entirely different.

Those with an anxiety disorder may also suffer the other symptoms mentioned earlier, such as dizziness, shortness of breath, trembling, sweating, and nausea, rather than just a general feeling of worry or nervousness.

Anxiety disorders can affect every facet of life and make it more difficult for a person to accomplish everyday tasks, such as household chores, grocery shopping, or hanging out with friends and family.

Furthermore, excessive anxiety is a debilitating disorder that can change a person’s quality of life.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression symptoms look very similar.

Both affect appetite and sleep and can make a person’s mood swing from high to low within moments. They can also affect relationships the person has because they’re not their true self with all the worry, stress, and feelings of inadequacy that both disorders can bring.

It’s been described by some who experience both as recognizing and stressing about everything that you need to do (anxiety) but not having the energy or mindset to accomplish any of it (depression).

One disorder can develop into the other quickly because of how related their symptoms are, making both an incredible suppressant to physical and mental health.

How to Explain Anxiety to Someone Else

Because not everyone deals with anxiety on an extended basis, it can be hard to understand.

Anxiety is what is known as an “invisible illness,” or one that cannot be recognized by looking at a person.

People with a disorder may put on a brave face for others, only to be struggling on the inside with feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and worry.

So, how do we explain anxiety to someone who has never experienced it in such a capacity?

1. Anxiety fluctuates from day to day

Those who have anxiety disorders say it doesn’t feel the same throughout the weeks or even days.

Anxiety exists on a spectrum. Therefore, it can feel gut-wrenching and crushing one day, while the person can feel the total opposite the next day.

It’s an unpredictable condition, which makes it hard to understand by those who don’t experience it continually.

Related: Why Do I Hate Myself? What Causes Self-Hatred and How to Deal With It

2. You feel it physically

Anxiety triggers the brain into thinking there is a threat, therefore activating the “fight or flight” response. This response is what makes the other symptoms appear-racing pulse, shortness of breath, headaches-and without relief, those symptoms stay within the body and continue in a vicious cycle.

When anxiety is at its peak, many have compared it to a nervous, buzzing feeling underneath their skin. It may even make the skin feel itchy or like there is something consistently crawling on the person who is affected by it.

Related: How to Stop Overthinking: Why Do I Overthink and Practical Tips to Stop

3. It makes it hard to think rationally

When dealing with stress, most people have a series of coping techniques that they turn to that help them de-stress or calm down. It can be journaling, meditating, praying, exercising, or a fun hobby or activity.

But sometimes, those coping mechanisms don’t work, and our emotions burden our mental health. It can be hard to differentiate reality from our thoughts when they are so pressing.

For example, we may have a great relationship with our best friends, but when they don’t text back as fast as we are used to, we may jump to the conclusion that we’ve done something wrong or that they hate us because of anxiety.

Related: Watch Your Thoughts: Why it is Important and Practical Tips to Change

How to explain anxiety, Anxiety feels like irritability, restlessness etc, everyone experiences it on occasion, so your loved ones can understand

4. It’s not an emotion; it’s a disorder for some

Again, anxiety is experienced by everyone from time to time.

But when it sticks around, when it makes it hard to accomplish everyday tasks, or when additional physical stressors are present, anxiety is more than just a fleeting emotion, but rather a disorder.

Related: What Are Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms and How to Develop Healthy Habits

5. There isn’t a quick fix

Of course, those who are burdened by an anxiety disorder would like to have an easy way out of their emotions. There are coping mechanisms that can help, but sometimes these can be just temporary distractions rather than a long-term solution for the problems excessive anxiety raises.

Therefore, it’s important to recognize when self-medication isn’t the best option for a solution to anxiety disorders, and when professional help is needed.

Related: How to Calm Down: Science Behind it and Effective Tips to Calming Down


When anxiety affects the person’s ability to function within their life, a series of tests can be introduced to offer the proper form of therapy, the two most common being medication and psychotherapy.

Medications can help take away some of the negative symptoms that anxiety can introduce, while psychotherapy can offer skill development of coping mechanisms that help control any symptoms from anxiety and depression.

Your doctor will be able to provide you with the best advice toward mental health and stability.

The Bottom Line

Anxiety is a normal response from a brain that is trying to protect us. When we are in unfamiliar situations, our brain releases a chemical that is known as the “flight or fight” response.

Anxiety begins when that response is a little more sensitive in some than others and we may find ourselves ready to run when there is no active danger present.

Over time, if this feeling persists, it can develop into an anxiety disorder and affect our ability to perform day-to-day tasks. There are many different forms of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and selective mutism.

Those who have anxiety may say they feel it physically, that it fluctuates from day to day, and that they feel helpless, not in control, and burdened by their disorder.

It’s important that we understand when anxiety is not just a momentary feeling and to seek professional help when it is needed.

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