How to tell if you have an anxiety disorder

Wondering about the difference between “normal” stress and an anxiety disorder? The distinction can be especially important if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.


September 9, 2022

Written by:

Dr. Erin Hendriks

Board-Certified Physician

Medically Reviewed by:


May 2, 2024

Mental Health
Mental Health
Mind-Gut Connection
Mind-Gut Connection

So much has been going on in the world lately, right? In times like this, it’s not unusual to have headaches, trouble sleeping, or distress. We’re all doing our best to cope, but you might be wondering about the difference between “normal” stress and an outright anxiety disorder. That distinction can be especially important if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), since anxiety can make your IBS symptoms worse.

Common symptoms of an anxiety disorder

While some of the following symptoms often occur during stressful periods, multiple or severe symptoms could signal an anxiety disorder. They include: 

  • Feeling particularly stressed or tense
  • Experiencing restlessness or edginess
  • A sped-up heartbeat or quick, shallow breathing 
  • Physical symptoms like cold hands, sweating, or digestive trouble
  • Trouble relaxing or letting down your guard
  • Feeling sure something bad is about to happen
  • Surges of anger or irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Panic or intense fear
  • Repetitive, negative thoughts 
  • Trouble sleeping or fatigue
  • Dissociation, like being out of touch with your body or not being sure what’s happening in daily life
  • Increased diarrhea, constipation, or other IBS symptoms

Stress is often connected to particular events or transitions, like going through a move. Feelings of anxiety, on the other hand, may be related to a traumatic event, but may also not have a specific cause. A trigger, like a certain sound, event, or place (and even too much caffeine or processed carbs) can bring on anxiety. Some health problems or the side effects of certain medications can also contribute to it. Both stress and anxiety can profoundly affect your IBS via the gut-brain axis.

Types of anxiety disorders

It’s possible to have different anxiety disorders, sometimes at the same time, and some anxiety disorders can worsen over time. 

One of the most common disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, involves becoming deeply worried about even daily activities. You might perceive threats around every corner, so to speak, or might not be able to stop thinking about what could go wrong. This may be accompanied by a sinking or churning feeling in your gut, by a sense of doom, or by internal “itchiness” that won’t give you a break. 

Panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder, brings on intense peaks of worry, fear, or terror. Your heart may beat very quickly, and you may feel short of breath or even as though you might be dying. Though an attack may pass in moments, it may feel as though it goes on for hours.

Separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias like agoraphobia are other types of anxiety disorders. Whatever type you may have, it can reach the level of a disorder if it keeps occuring, is debilitating, interferes with your ability to have a normal life, and is very difficult to control. An anxiety disorder can disrupt your closest relationships, and can exist alongside, IBS, chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.

What to do if you think you have an anxiety disorder

If you suspect you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder, make an appointment with your physician to see what might be causing it and to get a treatment plan. 

Be supportive of yourself during this process. About one out of every three Americans have an anxiety disorder at some point, so even though it can feel uncomfortable, there are a lot of treatment options.

What to do about anxiety in the moment

When you notice panic or overwhelming worry intensifying, take the deepest breath you can. Try to find a quiet, secure place where you can breathe steadily. Try a pattern where you inhale for a count of four, hold your breath until you count seven, then exhale for a count of eight. Repeat this several times. Steady breathing can help calm both your mind and body.

If you’re able to, move. Complete a set of stretches or take a quick walk. This will help burn off some of the energy related to anxiety. You can also splash your face with cold water.

As you move, reassure yourself. You can remind yourself that it’s normal to react to stress and to challenging things with nervousness. You can also “check the situation” by asking yourself:

  • What proof do I have that something will go wrong?
  • 1-100, how likely is it something bad will happen?
  • In the worst case scenario, what will I do?

To help, you can journal about any triggers or patterns you noticed that were related to anxiety or panic. These might help, too:

  • List things that make you feel happier, more positive, or more grateful. Positive emotions can be powerful 
  • Get your heart rate up with 30 minutes of IBS-friendly exercise, since regular exercise helps manage anxiety
  • Skip sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and processed carbs when you can; pick fermented foods and other foods that promote a good mood
  • Use a lavender or lemongrass diffuser or candle (or any other calming scent, of course)

What to do about anxiety in the long term

Self care is great, but so is systematic support. This can include:

Get more support from Salvo Health

At Salvo Health, our digital healthcare platform and virtual clinic provides you with continuous text-based support and care for your chronic condition. Imagine being able to text a board-certified doctor or behavioral health coach to avoid flare-ups or manage your pain. Alongside messaging-based communication, members receive a customized Care Plan that can take account of how their symptoms can be managed, no matter how anxious they are. 

Get immediate access to a coordinated Salvo Health care team, including a certified gastro specialist and board-certified health coach when you join Salvo Health today. 

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Written by:

Dr. Erin Hendriks

Board-Certified Physician