Anxiety is a normal part of life. At times it is unavoidable, and sometimes even necessary and advantageous. This may seem counter intuitive, but anxiety can often help us motivate or push ourselves to get something done that we know we’ve been putting off. Imagine you have a big presentation coming up at work that could potentially lead to the promotion you’ve been striving for. Without a little anxiety, you might not take your work as seriously or get it done on time. It can also help us recognize danger and keep us safe. Think of your ancient ancestor who had to hunt for food in the wild. If they did not have the fear and anxiety to recognize and run from overpowering predators, they would easily become prey themselves. So having a little anxiety is not such a bad thing. But what happens when you can’t shut that anxiety off?
The difference between necessary anxiety and an anxiety disorder lies mainly in the duration, intensity and impact of the anxiety. Anxiety that is only brought on by occasional stressors throughout life is generally not too problematic, but if you are feeling anxious seemingly all the time, it is going to be difficult for you to live a fully functional and fulfilling life – and this is precisely why it is called a disorder.
The most common anxiety disorder is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The symptoms of this disorder include the following:
Excessive Worrying and 3 of the following:
Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
Feeling easily fatigued
Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
These are the symptoms listed in the DSM-5, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but they are certainly not the only symptoms you may experience. Other common symptoms include body aches, decreased (or increased) appetite, indecisiveness, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and many others. It’s also important to note that the “worrying” can be about a variety of different topics, including your health, your job, finances or even minor issues. You may also notice changes in your behavior. Perhaps you are not sleeping as well as you used to, you find yourself snapping at people more often, are having difficulty completing tasks at work, and are generally feeling you have less energy to do the things you enjoy.
There are of course other forms of anxiety as well. These include, among others, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and phobias. Obsessive Compulsive disorder is characterized by intrusive thoughts, urges and images that are only soothed by related or sometimes even unrelated behaviors or mental actions (counting, repeating words, etc). Panic disorder is a disorder in which an individual has recurring and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is characterized by intense feelings of impending doom, heart palpitations, sweating, a feeling of shortness of breath, feeling dizzy/lightheaded and a variety of other potential physical symptoms. Phobia disorders relate to specific fears (spiders, heights, cars and social situations) that induce intense feeling of anxiety and avoidance.
People who struggle with anxiety are often called "worry warts" or "overthinkers," but anxiety is as much physical as it is mental. So, take notice of not just your thoughts and worries, but also what effect this is having on your physical body and behavior. If you notice many of the symptoms listed above and they don’t seem to be going away, it may be an indication you are suffering from an anxiety disorder. Of course, do not take the information in the blog as a diagnosis, and instead please reach out to a qualified mental health professional (Psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed mental health counselor, etc.) At the end of the day, the most important question to ask yourself is: Are these feelings and symptoms impacting my ability to live a fully functioning and fulfilling life? If the answer to that question is yes, it may be a good idea to seek help.