When you think of anxiety, you probably imagine the most obvious signs: sweating nervously, feeling agitated, worrying nonstop. But anxiety can manifest in countless ways, many of which we’re not even aware of. These subtle signs of anxiety probably don’t rise to the level of a “disorder,” but they can interfere with our lives in ways we don’t realize.
I’ve had my own experience of waking up to unacknowledged anxiety. Years ago as I talked with a colleague at work, she noted that I have a lot of social anxiety that I was good at masking. I felt the rise of knee-jerk defensiveness, but I knew right away that she’d seen a true part of me.
Many of us prefer not to think of ourselves as anxious because we consider it a weakness or a personal failing. It’s neither, of course, and all of us feel anxious at times. The more we can recognize anxiety in ourselves, the more we can keep it from controlling our lives in ways we’re not aware of. Here are subtle signs to look for.
1. Constantly planning ahead
In most situations of your life, you leave as little as possible to chance. For example, if you’re driving somewhere you think ahead to any problems that might come up and how to avoid them: traffic delays, difficult intersections, trouble finding parking. Or before conversations you invest a lot of energy thinking about what you want to say and how the other person might respond. You might tell yourself you just like to plan ahead, but it’s driven by an underlying fear that something could go wrong if you don’t think it all through ahead of time.
2. Avoiding spontaneity
In a related way, you might seek predictability in everything you do: your schedule, your meals, your interactions with the people in your life. It’s normal to seek comfort in routines, but routines can easily turn into ruts that trap you in your comfort zones. As a result, you miss out on the surprising joy you might find off your well-worn path.
3. Always seeking distractions
Whenever you have a little downtime, you fill it with entertainment or other distractions. You immediately reach for your phone, check your email, or read the news. These behaviors are often unconscious efforts to quiet the agitation that arises in an unoccupied mind.
Whether it’s writing a paper, cleaning the kitchen, creating an Instagram post, or composing an email, “good enough” won’t cut it. It has to be perfect, with every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted. While it may simply be attention to detail, more often it’s about the fear of getting something wrong and disappointing others.
5. Avoiding social situations
You often turn down or avoid opportunities to get together with other people. Maybe you tell yourself you’re “not in the mood” or that you’re an introvert, and that avoiding these gatherings is just a preference (those were the stories I told myself years ago). But once you recognize the presence of social anxiety, you start to see the many ways it’s guiding your choices.
6. Carrying physical tension
Anxiety often shows up physically as muscular tension. Although you may not feel anxious, your body is telling a different story. Your jaw is always tight, your shoulders are tense, and your stomach is in knots. Sometimes carrying anxiety in the body makes it less likely that you’ll feel it emotionally, and less likely that you’ll recognize it as anxiety.
7. Difficulty delegating to others
When you’re in charge of something, you need to supervise the whole process—even when you don’t have time to. It’s hard for you to give up control, and you worry that others will let you down by not doing it as well as you would. When you do delegate, your anxiety about giving up control leads you to micromanage the process.
8. Using alcohol to cope
Is it hard to imagine yourself at a party without a drink in your hand? Do you grab a drink as soon as possible to ease your nerves? Alcohol is such a staple at social gatherings that it can be difficult to recognize how dependent we may be on its anxiety-reducing effects. It’s worth noting that while alcohol is effective at lowering anxiety in the short-term, in the long-term it often leads to more anxiety.
Contrary to popular belief, procrastination is generally not a sign of laziness. Instead, it’s driven by one of two fears: that you’ll hate doing the task, or that you’ll do it badly. These fears lead you to delay tackling it, thereby avoiding the discomfort you’re afraid of.
Finishing tasks as soon as possible, even before they’re due—what psychologists have dubbed “pre-crastination”—can also be a sign of anxiety. Unfinished tasks might create a feeling of tension, which you rush to resolve at the earliest opportunity. One potential cost, as psychologist Adam Grant has pointed out, is missing out on more creative solutions.
11. Always apologizing
Anxiety about offending others can lead you to say you’re sorry all the time, as you try to avoid disapproval. Saying “I’m sorry” may be a reflexive way of trying to smooth over the possibility of any tension in your relationships. Maybe you’ve even apologized for apologizing so much if someone pointed it out to you!
12. Playing it safe
You’re very averse to risk—with investing, in your work, in your relationships. You habitually shy away from the possibility of failure, which includes not pursuing your goals and dreams, like writing that book you’ve long had in mind, or starting that business. You also play it safe in your relationships, keeping some distance and being careful not to get hurt. Behind all these hesitations is a fear of vulnerability—of taking a chance on putting yourself out there when your reputation or heart is on the line. As a result, you hold yourself back in ways you’ll likely regret as you look back at the life you lived.
If you recognize yourself in some of these descriptions, it’s certainly nothing to feel bad about. Anxiety is the most common cause of psychological distress, and not only that – it can often be a useful motivator.
At the same time, a life designed around anxiety—however subtle—is limiting. If that’s where you find yourself, look for ways to start moving through the discomfort and avoidance. Start as small as you need to, but just start. With repeated practice it will get easier. In the process you’ll be building a life defined not by anxiety, but by what’s most important to you.
If you'd like some easy daily practices to help manage anxiety, my e-guide “10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day” is available for free when you sign up for my newsletter.