- Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
- She explains that while everyone experiences anxiety in moderation, if the frequency or severity of your anxiety seriously affects your daily routine, you may have an anxiety disorder.
- Morin says that if your anxiety prevents you from attending social gatherings, makes it difficult to maintain a relationship, or interferes with your ability to sleep, it may be time to seek professional help.
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Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion. When you experience it in moderation — and at appropriate times — it can be good for you.
But high levels of anxiety at the wrong times can interfere with your quality of life. And this is how mental health professionals differentiate between normal anxiety and anxiety disorders.
Helpful anxiety alarms
Anxiety is meant to keep you safe. It’s your brain’s way of alerting your body that you’re in danger and need to spring into action.
If you encounter a hungry lion, your anxiety should kick in and change your heart rate and breathing so you can run faster. Your survival will depend on your ability to get away. In this case, anxiety prepares your body to perform better.
Anxiety alarm bells also prevent you from entering into a dangerous situation. For example, when you prepare to cross the street, your anxiety likely tells you to look both ways first so you don’t step into the path of an oncoming car.
There’s a good chance your anxiety alarm bells can be a little faulty — most peoples’ are. So you might experience these alarm bells when you don’t really need them.
In today’s world, you probably don’t spend much time worrying about running from hungry lions. Instead, your biggest sources of stress may stem from traffic jams and unread emails.
But your body might still react to modern-day struggles as if you’re in a life or death situation. You may find yourself feeling panicked when you get invited to speak on stage. Or your heart might race and you become dizzy the second your boss says, “Come to my office for a meeting right now.”
So while speaking on stage and meeting with your boss might pose social and financial risks, these situations don’t put you in any physical danger.
Everyone experiences these false alarms. And they aren’t necessarily a problem. In fact, a little anxiety might improve your performance.
Studies show athletes actually perform at their peak when they have a little anxiety. Having no anxiety at all can cause them to become too relaxed about their performance. Being their best requires them to stay focused.
Similarly, a little anxiety might fuel your performance in the classroom or in the office. You’ll work harder when you’re concerned about how you’re doing.
But if you can’t distinguish real anxiety alarms from false ones, or your alarm bells make it difficult to function, you may have an anxiety disorder.
Too much anxiety — or an unhelpful response to anxiety — becomes problematic. An individual with panic disorder might have a panic attack while sitting safely inside in their own home.
Or someone with generalized anxiety disorder may worry so much that they can’t stay focused. Their productivity could decline as their brain keeps them in a constant state of high alert.
The absence of anxiety isn’t necessarily an indicator of mental health, however. Take, for example, someone who is terrified of driving over bridges. This individual might spend four hours a day commuting to work in a way that allows them to take a tunnel instead of going over a bridge. They keep their anxiety at bay, but clearly their avoidance of it takes a serious toll on their quality of life.
Any time your anxiety interferes with your social, occupational, or educational functioning, you may have an anxiety disorder.
Here are some examples of how an anxiety disorder might impact your life:
- You miss work because you’re feeling too anxious to go into the office.
- Your anxiety prevents you from attending social events.
- Your anxiety makes it difficult to maintain a relationship.
- You struggle to concentrate because you are worrying so much.
- You have trouble enjoying everyday activities.
- Your anxiety interferes with your ability to sleep.
How to know when to get help
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that more than 18% of the population has an anxiety disorder. Yet only 36% of those with such a disorder get help.
There are many reasons why individuals with anxiety don’t get help. The stigma associated with mental health issues, lack of insurance, and difficulty finding a therapist are just a few of the reasons.
And of course, anxiety also makes people less likely to seek help. Individuals with anxiety disorders worry about everything, including whether therapy will help.
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Many individuals with anxiety don’t even recognize that they have a problem. They’ve grown so accustomed to worrying and being in a heightened state of anxiety that they don’t realize how bad they feel.
If you suspect that you may have an anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor, or reach out to a mental health professional. Anxiety is very treatable — usually with talk therapy.
Unfortunately, however, many people wait years before getting help, and they suffer unnecessarily. The sooner you talk to someone, the sooner you can get relief from anxiety and feel better.
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