What is Chronic Anxiety: Symptoms, Management, and Relief

by | Apr 1, 2024 | Anxiety

Clinically Reviewed By Dr Dubey Shiva

Chronic anxiety is a long-term condition where people feel excessive worry and stress constantly, often without any specific reason. This is different from normal anxiety that everyone feels occasionally; chronic anxiety is continuous and can disrupt daily life, relationships, and overall well-being.

People with chronic anxiety may experience restlessness, fatigue, trouble focusing, irritability, muscle tension, and problems sleeping. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults annually. However, only about 37% of those affected get treatment.

Understanding chronic anxiety is necessary for managing it. Treatment options include therapy, medication, lifestyle adjustments, and coping techniques. With proper support and management strategies, those affected can reduce its impact and enhance their quality of life.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Chronic anxiety is a persistent form of anxiety that is more intense and long-lasting than normal worry, with symptoms persisting even without any apparent stressors. It can manifest in various forms, including GAD, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
  • Individuals with chronic anxiety experience both physical and emotional symptoms, ranging from muscle tension and digestive problems to excessive worry and feelings of being overwhelmed, which can lead to significant health issues and impair daily functioning.
  • The treatment for chronic anxiety involves a layered approach, including therapy (with CBT being particularly effective), medication (such as SSRIs), lifestyle changes (like exercise and diet), and the development of coping strategies to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

What is Chronic Anxiety

Chronic anxiety is a long-term condition where individuals feel excessive worry, nervousness, and tension, regardless of their situation. Unlike the normal anxiety that comes and goes with specific stressors, chronic anxiety remains, making everyday activities and relaxation difficult.

This form of anxiety is intense, often not linked to any identifiable cause, and can significantly disrupt daily life. It’s not just about feeling anxious before an important event; it’s an ever-present sensation that doesn’t ease up, even without immediate problems.

It’s important to distinguish between temporary anxiety and the overwhelming worry characteristic of chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety often requires intervention through therapy, medication, or lifestyle changes to manage its symptoms and improve the individual’s quality of life. Recognizing chronic anxiety is the first step towards seeking help and finding effective coping strategies.

Types of Chronic Anxiety

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – Characterized by excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that interfere with day-to-day activities.
  • Panic Disorder – This is marked by intense episodes of fear and feelings of being out of control, often manifesting as panic attacks.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder – Involves a persistent fear of being watched and judged by others, leading to avoidance of social situations.
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder – Features excessive fear of being parted from people to whom one is attached.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – This includes symptoms like flashbacks and emotional withdrawal after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
  • Other Specified Anxiety Disorders – Including specific phobias and anxiety induced by substances or health issues, each contributing uniquely to the spectrum of chronic anxiety.

Duration and Intensity

  • Duration: Chronic anxiety is persistent, lasting for months or even years. This sets it apart from normal worry, which generally fades quickly. [Source: National Institute of Mental Health]
  • Intensity: The symptoms of chronic anxiety are far more intense than everyday worry. They can feel overwhelming and may focus on negative outcomes, even those with a low probability of happening. [Source: Verywell Mind]
  • Persistence: While everyday worry tends to go away when you’re distracted or focused on something else, chronic anxiety can linger and intensify over time.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms of Chronic Anxiety

The effects of chronic anxiety extend beyond the mind, with physical and emotional symptoms impacting various body systems. Some common physical symptoms of chronic anxiety include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Digestive issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Cardiovascular responses

Chronic anxiety places physical stress on the body and can have a large impact on overall health and well-being.

On an emotional level, symptoms like excessive worry, negative thoughts, and behavioral changes can be experienced. The persistence of these symptoms can lead to long-term health issues like: 

  • Ulcers
  • Heart problems
  • Migraines
  • Vision trouble
  • Back problems
  • Mental health concerns and mental health conditions

Physical Symptoms

One of the most common physical symptoms of chronic anxiety is muscle tension, which can lead to chronic pain. Rapid breathing and the sensation of not getting enough air can also be common respiratory symptoms during periods of anxiety, contributing to the sense of panic.

Chronic anxiety can also show in digestive issues such as:

  • Stomach aches
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Other digestive problems

Sleep disorders, including insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, are another burden that chronic anxiety can bring. This disturbance in sleep can create a cycle where bad-quality sleep heightens anxiety.

Emotional Symptoms

Chronic anxiety involves feeling worried and negative almost all the time, making everyday tasks and decisions hard. This constant worry gets in the way, making it tough to focus or relax. People with chronic anxiety often see problems as bigger than they are, feeling like they can’t handle them. This regularly makes them feel stressed out and overwhelmed.

Studies show that about 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will face an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Learning how to manage these feelings through therapy, support from friends and family, or sometimes medication can help. Understanding that you’re not alone and there are ways to feel better is a key step towards improving your well-being.

Causes of Chronic Anxiety

Chronic anxiety’s roots are deep and varied, involving both our biology and our experiences. On the genetic side, certain genes make some people more prone to anxiety disorders. Research has identified specific genes, like RBFOX1, that might increase the risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

But it’s not all about genetics. Our environment plays a huge role, too. Family dynamics, cultural background, and childhood experiences shape how we respond to stress. Plus, broader issues like environmental concerns, discrimination, and social inequalities can also fuel feelings of anxiety.

Childhood traumas are particularly relevant. People who’ve experienced traumatic events when they’re young are more likely to struggle with anxiety as adults. In short, chronic anxiety often comes from a mix of our genetic makeup, the environment we grow up in, and the challenges we face in life.

Diagnosing Chronic Anxiety

Diagnosing chronic anxiety involves a complete evaluation by a mental health professional. They look for symptoms of severe, persistent anxiety lasting for at least six months, along with other mental health condition evaluations. Various tools and questionnaires are used in the diagnostic process.

Some tools used to screen for and measure the severity of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) include:

  • The Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale (GAD-7)
  • The Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI)
  • The Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ)
  • The Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI)
  • The Computerized Adaptive Testing-Anxiety Inventory (CAT-ANX)

Treatment Options for Chronic Anxiety

If you’re living with chronic anxiety, know that you’re not alone, and help is available. While it may feel overwhelming, there are effective treatment options to help you manage your anxiety and regain control of your life.

Therapy

Therapy is a common and effective treatment for chronic anxiety, and the goal is to help individuals manage anxious thoughts and reduce panic. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly helpful, assisting with managing anxiety and improving interpersonal functioning.

Several therapy approaches can help with anxiety, including:

  • Exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing clients to anxiety-invoking situations or objects
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) focuses on accepting feelings of anxiety while working to change related thoughts and behaviors.
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
  • Group therapy

Medication

While therapy is very important, medication can also be important in the treatment of chronic anxiety. Still, medication should be used only after consulting with a healthcare professional.

Personalized Treatment: A psychiatrist can assess your symptoms, discuss your medical history, and determine if your medication is appropriate. They’ll help you select the right type of medication and the safest dosage.

Managing Side Effects: Any medication can have potential side effects. A healthcare professional can explain these risks and help you monitor and manage any side effects that may occur.

Lifestyle Changes

Managing chronic anxiety also involves lifestyle changes that improve overall health and well-being. Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment, with mindfulness techniques increasing the benefits.

A balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, and omega-3-rich foods, along with being mindful of food allergies, supports good mental health and helps manage anxiety. Including protein in breakfast for steady energy and complex carbohydrates to increase serotonin levels have a calming effect and help with anxiety management.

Techniques like:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Regular engagement in hobbies

It can also be effective in managing anxiety symptoms.

Coping Strategies for Chronic Anxiety

Beyond treatment options, developing effective coping strategies is also important for managing chronic anxiety. A strong support system provides invaluable help in managing mental health and anxiety disorders and can consist of the following:

  • Trusted friends
  • Family
  • Support groups
  • Online communities

Reaching out and connecting with someone who cares is key to improving safety, security, and comfort.

When worries and negative thoughts begin to spiral, there are several strategies you can try to interrupt the anxiety cycle:

  • Share your concerns with a trusted family member or friend
  • Learn strategies from therapy to challenge your worries and cope more effectively
  • Practice self-soothing techniques that engage the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, movement

These techniques can provide quick relief from anxiety symptoms.

For individuals in relationships, coping strategies include open communication about anxiety, setting boundaries, and practicing relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness.

Chronic Anxiety on Daily Life

Chronic anxiety’s impact is extensive, affecting an individual’s ability to:

  • Relish or even partake in previously enjoyable activities
  • Cause restlessness, dizziness, heart palpitations
  • Disrupt sleep, making it tough to enjoy life and engage in leisure pursuits

It can also affect productivity at work or school, as individuals with chronic anxiety may face difficulties concentrating.

Personal relationships can be affected by chronic anxiety, causing individuals to:

  • Withdraw socially
  • Experience heightened divorce rates
  • Have issues gaining support from partners, which can exacerbate the severity of their anxious symptoms.

Individuals with chronic anxiety often find themselves in a tiring cycle of pretending everything is okay when it’s not, which can lead to mental and emotional weariness from maintaining this facade all the time.

Summary

Chronic anxiety is a long-lasting form of worry that affects many people’s lives, making daily tasks and relaxation hard. It’s not just feeling stressed now and then; it’s a deep, constant unease that comes with physical symptoms like muscle tension and trouble sleeping. Although it’s common, affecting nearly 18% of Americans, less than half get help. It can show up in many ways, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic attacks, or social anxiety, and a mix of genetics, life experiences, and stress often causes it.

Treating chronic anxiety involves therapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), medications, and lifestyle changes, such as exercise and diet adjustments. Techniques learned in therapy can help manage the worry and physical symptoms. A good support network is also important. With the right approach, those dealing with chronic anxiety can improve their quality of life, proving that while the condition is challenging, it’s also manageable with support and the right strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is considered chronic anxiety?

Chronic anxiety is a form of anxiety that persists for a long time, even with treatment. It may not go away completely.

What triggers chronic anxiety?

Chronic anxiety can be triggered by major stressors like relationship issues, job change, or the death of a loved one, as well as by a history of traumatic experiences and difficult childhood or adulthood experiences. It’s important to consider these triggers when addressing anxiety.

What is the difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is a normal stress reaction, while anxiety disorders involve excessive fear or anxiety that can impact daily life. It’s important to recognize when anxiety becomes overwhelming and unmanageable, as it may indicate an anxiety disorder.

Can you live with constant anxiety?

Living with constant anxiety can be challenging, but seeking treatment, developing coping skills, and finding strategies to reduce stress and change negative thought patterns can help you manage the condition and live a more normal life.

How is chronic anxiety diagnosed?

Chronic anxiety is often diagnosed by mental health professionals such as psychiatrists or psychologists using tools and questionnaires to assess the symptoms.

 

Anastasiya Palopoli

Written by Anastasiya Palopoli

Anastasiya Palopoli, a board-certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, has extensive experience in nursing and psychiatric care, with degrees in Nursing from UCF and Psychiatric Mental Health from the University of Cincinnati. Following a residency in General and Child Psychiatry in Florida, she specializes in treating Dementia, psychosis, depression, and anxiety through holistic approaches. Beyond her professional life, she enjoys hiking, tennis, and traveling with her family.