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Understanding Anxiety, Agitation and Restlessness

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Understanding Anxiety, Agitation and Restlessness

Anxiety affects our emotions, thoughts and bodies. If you've been dealing with anxiety for a long time, you've probably noticed that your anxiety can leave you feeling like you’re just not yourself anymore. You may be a bit more agitated and/or restless; and you may find yourself quicker to experience annoyance or other negative emotions. This is all a part of anxiety.

For example, a person with anxiety may find that they are frustrated with their partner and more prone to lashing out. They may get annoyed when someone tries to help them even though the help is kind and justified. They may become resentful without too much provocation. At times these emotions may be strong enough to erupt into fully-expressed anger. At other times, this may just be a matter of low level agitation that makes you more prone to experience unpleasant mood states. 

Difference Between Agitation and Anxiety

There are ways in which anxiety and agitation are similar. Both cause tension. Both put a person in a more heightened state of arousal. Both make people irritable. Both can also cause the other, where agitation can make someone anxious and anxiety can make someone easily agitated.

But the difference lies in the primary symptoms. A person that is agitated is quick to frustration or anger, often feeling bothered. A person with anxiety tends to have more of a fear response first, with symptoms like nervous energy, rapid heartbeat, and sweating. Their agitation then stems from the discomfort of those experiences. 

Negative Emotions Are a Part of Anxiety

People think of anxiety as its own emotion. But in reality, it would be more accurate to say that anxiety is a state of being which can manifest in our thoughts, behaviors, physical sensations and emotions. In other words, anxiety is a psychological disorder - one which often causes a host of other symptoms that may seem unrelated.

There are many different reasons to explain the link between anxiety, agitation, and other negative feelings. Some include:

Agitation can be defined in many different ways and when it comes to anxiety, agitation can manifest in varying forms. It's not as simple as saying that your fight/flight system causes agitation or that you're agitated because you're irritated with your anxiety symptoms. There are so many things going on every time you're dealing with anxiety that all of them come together and create that restless feeling.

How to Control Anxiety-Based Agitation

This form of agitation can cause its own distress, which is why controlling agitation is so important. If you don't control your agitation, you'll find that it causes more anxiety which causes more agitation. Many people find that agitation can precipitate a panic attack, often because the feeling of being on edge puts your body on high alert, which in turn causes you to focus more on your anxiety.

The first key to controlling agitation is simply to learn not to fight it. It's a symptom of your anxiety, and in many ways it's important to simply accept that you're going to be agitated, and remind yourself that anxiety is causing it. This is extremely important, because spending unnecessary energy fighting agitation and restlessness in ways that don’t really work could cause you even more stress. These things aren't going to simply go away on their own; and it helps if you can stop blaming yourself for how you feel.  

Another strategy to reduce agitation is to work-off that energy. Remember, adrenaline is pumping through your body because your body thinks you're encountering some type of threat. The feeling of restlessness is often caused by all that adrenaline sitting there, going unused. So use it. Get moving. If you can run, go jogging whether outdoors or on a treadmill; and if all you can do is walk around for a while then take a stroll. Whatever form of physical activity you choose, getting moving can help to dissipate some of the energy that underlies your agitation. 

Other strategies to try include:

Anxiety causes a great deal of built up tension. While you can use the strategies we discussed here to reduce and cope with the agitation you feel, this is not really a long term solution as you’re not tackling the real root of the problem. 

To do that, you need to address the anxiety that causes that agitation in the first place. Anxiety can be treated through therapy, medications, lifestyle changes, and self-help treatments that will make an impact. Only then can you truly stop agitation from continuously affecting your life.

Article Resources
  1. Duval, Elizabeth R., Arash Javanbakht, and Israel Liberzon. "Neural circuits in anxiety and stress disorders: a focused review." Therapeutics and clinical risk management 11 (2015): 115.       
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