How Much Worry is Too Much?
We all stress about things, but your level of worry could be indicative of something more serious.
By Lucy Morris
Whether it’s a big project due date at work or a twinge in your throat you fear might be the beginning signs of the flu, anxious thoughts are pretty run-of-the-mill. The issue lies in how much these concerns plague your everyday thoughts and experiences. Feeling anxious from time to time is very different from an anxiety disorder.
The most common mental illness in the United States, anxiety affects more than 40 million adults, and considering the unfamiliarity of the world we’re living in today, it’s no surprise the numbers are on the rise.
If you worry that your worrying might be a sign of an anxiety disorder, you’re not alone. Read on to learn how to differentiate between the two and what to do if it turns out you are struggling with a disorder.
Anxious Thoughts or Anxiety Disorder?
Having anxious thoughts from time to time is normal, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not always a bad thing. Natalie Battles, a therapist with Roots Counseling Center, explains, “Anxiety is not necessarily harmful. It comes from fear, and fear comes from our bodies and minds telling us something is not safe. Anxious thoughts keep us alert and help us do things well.”
Battles calls this ‘healthy anxiety,’ which she says can look like short periods of feeling anxious, feeling anxious in stressful situations, and worrying about situations or events that could cause problems, among other things. Basically, it’s feeling anxious occasionally but not enough to where it affects daily life.
Battles continues, “An anxiety disorder, or ‘unhealthy anxiety,’ on the other hand, can look like months or years of feeling anxious, anxious feelings that aren’t always linked to stressful situations, and worrying about situations or events that aren’t likely to cause problems.” Essentially, it’s a level of anxiety that’s impacting the way you live day to day.
Anxiety disorders can cause mental symptoms like trouble concentrating or thinking of things other than the present worry. Sleep issues are also common. It can also cause physical symptoms like gastrointestinal problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, headaches, and more.
“In the short term, anxiety increases your breathing and heart rate to direct blood flow where it’s needed in order to respond to the stressor,” Battles explains. “However, long-term anxiety can cause your brain to release stress hormones on a regular basis. Your body then begins to believe it is always in danger (ready to fight or flight) and floods with adrenaline and cortisol. When this happens, physical symptoms can appear that are a result of our anxiety.”
Common Anxiety Disorders
If your anxiety is impacting your ability to live your life, it’s likely you have an anxiety disorder. There are numerous types of anxiety disorders that range from separation anxiety to specific phobias, but the most common are generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Kristin Smith, licensed professional counselor with Parkridge Valley Hospital, explains the specifics:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
“GAD is characterized by excessive worry and uncontrollable apprehension that occurs more days than not about numerous events and activities,” says Smith. “The anxiety is out of proportion to the actual impact of the event.”
Social Anxiety Disorder
According to Smith, “Social anxiety disorder is a specific fear or anxiety about social situations, and it’s persistent. It causes significant impairment in functioning, and sufferers tend to believe the situations will involve negative scrutiny or embarrassment.”
“Panic disorder is associated with recurrent unexpected surges of intense fear or discomfort in which some of the following can occur: increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, feelings of choking, or fear of dying that creates a persistent worry about additional attacks,” says Smith. “It can lead to a significant change in behavior in order to avoid the attacks.”
A psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed mental health provider, or medical doctor can diagnose an individual with an anxiety disorder based on a few criteria. Smith explains, “To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the feelings of anxiety must be present on more days than not for six months; at least three other symptoms must be present; there must be impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning; and it must not be attributable to substance use or otherwise better explained by another mental health disorder.”
Unfortunately, getting help means admitting you need help, and there is a stigma associated with asking, especially as it relates to mental health. “We do not want to be perceived as weak or unable to solve our own problems,” says Smith. “We may also be concerned that our personal and professional lives will be disrupted if we ask for help.”
To break this stigma, mental health professionals recommend increasing conversations about our struggles. This can help validate our own feelings, along with the feelings of others.
“During this time of COVID-19, I have noticed more people starting to talk about their struggles,” says Battles. “It’s as if this ‘quarantined’ and ‘socially distant’ time has given us permission to admit that life is hard even though we may look like we have it all together. I am encouraged by these hard discussions with friends, family members, and clients, and I am reminded that the only way we get over something is to go through it.”
What You Can Do If You’re Struggling
Beyond talking with trusted confidants, there are other steps you can take to overcome or address your anxiety if you’re suffering.
First and foremost, it’s important to take the best care of yourself possible. This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising and remaining physically active, getting good sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques and meditation methods.
Completed with the help of a mental health provider, various therapy techniques can provide relief. Battles explains the options. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works on identifying, understanding, and changing thinking patterns and behaviors related to anxiety. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) examines multiple and sometimes contradictory ideas, combining self-acceptance with positive change simultaneously. Exposure Therapy gradually exposes an individual to a feared situation in a safe and controlled environment.”
In some instances, medication may be recommended in conjunction with the other methods. Your doctor can explain which one is best for you and your particular situation.
If you struggle with anxiety, don’t let it dampen your spirits! You are not alone, and there is help out there for you. Don’t let cost, fear, or the stigma associated with asking for help hold you back. Remember that it’s okay to not be okay. HS