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Anxiety or Agitation?

author image Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer specializing in disabled adventure travel. She spent 15 years working for Central Florida theme parks and frequently travels with her disabled father. Fritscher's work can be found in both print and online mediums, including She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Florida.
Anxiety or Agitation?
A mental health practioner taking notes during a therapy session. Photo Credit: shironosov/iStock/Getty Images

Anxiety and agitation are closely intertwined. People suffering from severe anxiety often report agitation, while those who experience agitation may simultaneously feel anxious. This can make it difficult to determine exactly what you or someone else may be experiencing. If you feel symptoms of anxiety or agitation, consult with a mental health professional to determine the root of your issue.

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Definition of Agitation

According to the National Institutes of Health, agitation can be defined as a period of extreme tension, irritability and arousal. If you are agitated, you might pace, chew on your fingernails, fidget with your clothing or hair, and be unable to sit still. Severe agitation may lead to self-harming behaviors such as biting the lip and scratching or ripping the skin. Agitated people may be combative, screaming or physically lashing out at those who try to help.

Definition of Anxiety

The National Institutes of Health defines anxiety as a healthy and normal response to certain situations. Arousal makes you cautious and aware of your surroundings, sharpens your senses and encourages you to take active steps. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, can be life-limiting. According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders can cause painful physical symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal distress, and may lead you to avoid situations that trigger your fear.

Differentiating Between the Two

Both disorders can cause similar symptoms. To decide whether you are suffering from agitation or anxiety, consider your overall mood. Are you afraid? Are you angry? Can you pinpoint a specific situation or event that triggers your feelings? For example, some people become anxious when giving a speech or flying on an airplane. Agitation is not usually triggered by a specific event.

Can One Cause the Other?

Agitation is a common symptom of severe anxiety. The chemicals in your brain that cause anxiety can, in large amounts, lead to agitation. Likewise, some people develop a fear of becoming agitated. If you have that fear, then agitation could lead to anxiety.

However, it is not accurate to say that either condition causes the other, because both can ultimately be traced to other specific causes. The causes vary from person to person, and only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose your condition and its root causes.

Getting Help

Both agitation and anxiety can worsen over time if not properly treated. If you experience symptoms of either condition, it is important to seek help. Ask your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist. Prepare for your appointment by keeping a journal of your symptoms, their severity and any possible triggering events.

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