subtle anxietyAn estimated 18% of adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder in any given 12-month period, and of those, 23% are classified as severe.1 Adolescents (ages 13 to 18) have a 25% prevalence of anxiety disorder, and of those, 6% of cases are severe.2 Despite the fact that anxiety disorders often respond well to therapy, two-thirds of individuals with diagnosable anxiety do not receive treatment.3 For millions of children, adolescents and adults, anxiety plays such a significant role in their day-to-day lives that it causes excessive distress and impedes their ability to fully function.

Anxiety behaviors may indicate the presence of an underlying mental health disorder. Knowing how to recognize behaviors in yourself or loved ones is integral to receiving a proper diagnosis and timely treatment. Although many people suffer from severe anxiety symptoms, other people have subtle signs that are commonly brushed aside. While not all of the following behaviors imply the presence of a full-blown anxiety disorder, they may be red flags and warrant an evaluation by a mental health professional. The last two disorders listed below are not anxiety disorders in the strictest definition, but closely related.3

Anxiety Disorder Stats

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): 6.8 million adults
  • Panic disorder: 6 million
  • Social anxiety disorder: 15 million
  • Specific phobias: 19 million
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: 2.2 million
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: 7.7 million

Potential Red Flag Behaviors

Avoidant behavior: Everybody seeks to avoid unpleasant tasks from time to time. However, individuals with social anxiety disorder and phobias engage in avoidant behavior habitually. Individuals with social anxiety disorder will go to great lengths to avoid social events. A person with a fear of flying will drive 5,000 miles over a three-day period rather than take a three-hour flight.

Irrational fears: When a fear becomes overwhelming, disruptive and exaggerated, this is likely the sign of a phobia. For example, somebody who is afraid of spiders might think they will die if one spins a web outside their bedroom window.

Obsessive thoughts: Repetitive, irrational thoughts may be accompanied by compulsive actions, routines and rituals performed over and over again. The thoughts and rituals associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder can cause terrible inner turmoil and interfere with optimal daily functioning.4

Excessive worrying: A hallmark sign of GAD is worrying too much about everyday things, whether large or small. Persistent anxious thoughts can occur nearly every day of the week for six months or longer.5

Difficulty concentrating: When a person is excessively worried, tense, nervous, self-conscious, panicked, overwhelmed, or stressed, concentrating is difficult. Being distracted by negative thoughts and feelings can manifest as poor concentration in depression and anxiety disorders.

Self-destructive “nervous” habits: A person struggling with anxiety may engage in self-destructive habits. Among these are compulsive nail biting (onychophagia), pulling out hair (trichotillomania), and skin picking (dermatillomania). When a person is experiencing severe anxiety, self-destructive behaviors tend to intensify.

Bruxism: This is the medical term for frequently grinding or clenching the teeth. While several factors can cause bruxism, anxiety is the most common culprit. Studies have shown that nearly 70% of bruxism cases occur as a result of stress or anxiety.7

Self-medicating: People with anxiety disorders may turn to comfort foods, alcohol or any type of drug that relaxes them (e.g. Xanax, marijuana). These behaviors can also help alleviate emotional pain and distress associated with an anxiety disorder.6

Sense of dread: Many people who have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, especially GAD or PTSD, often struggle with a frequent sense of dread or a feeling of being on edge. This can manifest in a physical manner, rather than as a conscious thought. A person might feel a physical “heaviness” in their chest, making it difficult to relax both mind and body.

Restlessness or fidgeting: Anxiety is often accompanied by restlessness or fidgeting. The inability to sit still, pacing and hand wringing are examples of restless behavior. People who fidget may constantly straighten their clothing, swing their legs while sitting, play incessantly with a cell phone or mindlessly tap their fingers on a surface.

Digestive issues: Anxiety is thought to be a contributing factor in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive issues. Chronic anxiety can prevent the body from properly and efficiently digesting food, and, in turn, anxiety may result in poor eating habits, which can compound digestive issues.5

Signs of Social Anxiety: People with social anxiety tend to worry for days or weeks leading up to an event or situation, and then obsess about it for days afterward. Other subtle signs include sweaty palms, blushing, trembling and abdominal distress.5

Perfectionism: The need to ensure everything is perfect is often a smokescreen for a fear of not being good enough, being judged, making mistakes or failing. Perfectionism is not uncommon in individuals who are highly self-conscious and is prevalent in people with OCD.5


Cognitive behavioral therapy is regarded as one of the best therapeutic approaches for anxiety disorders. It helps people recognize irrational and unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors, and teaches them how to replace them with healthy and empowering ones. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Paxil and Zoloft are often prescribed as an adjuvant treatment with psychotherapy. However, medication alone is not recommended as the primary treatment for anxiety disorders.

If you find yourself frequently feeling stressed, worried, overwhelmed, tense or afraid — and any of the subtle signs of anxiety listed above sound familiar — contact a mental health professional today.


  1. Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults. National Institute of Mental Health website. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  2. Any Anxiety Disorder Among Children. National Institute of Mental Health website. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  3. Facts & Statistics. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website Updated Sept. 2014. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: When Unwanted Thoughts Take Over. National Institute of Mental Health website. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  5. 12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder. Health website,,20646990,00.html Accessed June 17, 2016.
  6. Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  7. Causes of Bruxism. The Bruxism Association website. Accessed June 17, 2016.