We can all relate to the feeling of being a little anxious. Cramming for a deadline, giving a major presentation, getting ready for a first date, and waiting for difficult news are all surefire ways to get our heart rate up and running. Not only is anxiety an unavoidable part of life, it can actually be kind of helpful. This is often a hard sell, but anxiety is our brain’s way of telling us that something needs our attention or might be dangerous. At the right amount, it helps motivate us and gives us a boost. Sure, sometimes our warning system sends a false alarm, but for the most part it’s there to keep us prepared and out of trouble.
It’s not always easy to tell whether the anxiety we’re feeling is within the realm of what’s expected or typical.
That being said, there’s a very real difference between the anxiety that washes over us in anticipation of a difficult (or an exciting!) event and the kind that is overwhelming, exhausting, and all-consuming. The kind that makes us feel panicked or like we’re on the verge of “losing it”. The kind that stops us from living the life we really want.
But it’s not always easy to tell whether the anxiety we’re feeling is within the realm of what’s expected or typical. It doesn’t help that we’ve romanticized stress and that terms like “OCD” (obsessive compulsive disorder) and “panic attacks” get thrown around in everyday conversations. After a while, they lose their intended meaning. And we might be left wondering whether our anxiety is excessive and if it’s time to do something about it.
Here are several signs that your anxiety is getting out of hand and it might be worth seeking help:
You’re avoiding certain people, places, or situations
When it comes to anxiety of any kind, at it’s core, it’s about fear. In social anxiety, we’re preoccupied with what other people think about us. With phobias, we’re afraid of specific things, like heights, spiders, or flying. Panic attacks involve a fear of intense physical symptoms like dizziness, sweating, and heart palpitations. There’s also generalized anxiety, where our worries move from one thing to the next, like our health, safety, performance, and future (you know, the small stuff).
Regardless of what the fear is, when we’re afraid of something, we tend to avoid it. We avoid going to parties where we’ll see people we don’t know. We avoid going to the doctor because we’re afraid of needles. At the extreme end, we might avoid leaving the house altogether. The problem is this actually increases our anxiety as time goes on. It reinforces our belief that whatever we’re worried about is worth being afraid of. Feeling like we have no choice but to avoid the things that make us anxious is a sign that it might be time to seek help.
It’s getting in the way of your work or relationships
Really, the most important question to ask is: Is anxiety getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with your work, relationships, or goals in a meaningful way? Take a good, hard look at what you want in life and be honest with yourself when answering this question.
Are you calling in sick to work because you’re worried about the day? Are you having trouble concentrating? Are you self-sabotaging by handing in assignments late because you’re concerned they’re not “good enough”?
When it comes to anxiety of any kind, at it’s core, it’s about fear.
Are other people noticing that you seem stressed or distracted? Are you avoiding seeing family or friends? Is it hard to be present when you’re with them because you’re worried what they’re thinking or that something bad will happen? Anxiety can stop us from connecting with others. But tuning in to the ways it’s affecting our relationships and work and listening to feedback from people we trust will help us figure out if our anxiety is excessive.
You’re stuck in a cycle of “what-if”
Worrying is obviously an important sign that our anxiety is getting to be a problem, but it’s not always easy to spot. Usually, we worry about the things we care about – our relationships, well-being, and future. One of the best ways to catch yourself worrying is to notice your “what if” questions. What if I fail this exam? What if someone breaks into my house? What if I embarrass myself?
“What if” questions trick us into thinking we’re being productive by planning for all possibilities. They also do a great job convincing us that it’s not anxiety and that this new worry or threat is very real. But it’s easy to confuse worrying with planning. Planning for things we can control is helpful; ruminating about things we can’t is anxiety.
You’re coping in unhealthy ways
When we feel anxious, we’ll do anything we can to minimize uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And sometimes, we might end up coping in unhealthy ways, like using food, drugs, or alcohol. Everyone deserves some comfort food after a hard day, but bingeing, purging, or restrictive eating are problematic for a number of reasons. Similarly, a glass of wine at social events really does take the edge of. But it becomes a problem when you rely on that drink to be in an anxiety-provoking situation in the first place. Although they might reduce anxiety in the short-term, these coping strategies add to it over time and are important signals to seek help.
It’s getting physical
The mind-body connection is incredibly powerful. And when we’re feeling anxious, it can start to affect our physical well-being and health. Of course, it’s important to rule out other causes, but recurring symptoms, like headaches, stomachaches, and dizziness can all be signs that it’s time to seek help.
But aches and pains aren’t the only physical signs to look for. A telltale sign that anxiety is becoming a problem is when it interferes with our sleep. It’s also really common to have trouble sleeping because you’re up worrying about not getting enough sleep. Trust me— this never helps! And it’s a lot harder to manage stress and anxiety when you’re not sleeping well.
It’s taking a toll on your mood and mental health
Being anxious is no fun at all. After a while, it can really impact our mood. Anxiety and depression are very comorbid, which means that they often go hand in hand. Just like anxiety can make us sad, irritable, or depressed, feeling down can make us anxious. We might have thoughts like: “What’s wrong with me?”, “Will I ever feel like myself again?” “What if I don’t get better?” (Note— It might be time to re-read the point about “what ifs”!).
Other issues can also come up, like repeatedly checking or doing things (e.g., making sure you locked the door or turned off the stove, washing your hands, counting things) because you’re worried something bad will happen. Feeling like things aren’t real or that you’re watching yourself in a movie is also possible. Some people might even have thoughts of hurting themselves or someone else. If you noticing any of these changes, it’s definitely a good time to seek help from a mental health care professional.
What are the different ways to seek help?
Take care of the basics
Making sure you have a healthy and balanced lifestyle is the first step to managing any kind of anxiety. Get your sleep under control (a quick Google search of “sleep hygiene” will yield lots of helpful tips), eat healthily, and exercise regularly (even better if you can get outside for fresh air!). Don’t forget about your need for social connection. Friends and family can be a welcome distraction and great source of support.
Learn to relax
No one wants to be told to “relax” when they’re feeling anxious. But figuring out what really helps you to calm and comfort yourself is so important. In addition to making time for self-care, a regular practice of meditation and mindfulness reduces our everyday levels of anxiety and helps us cope when we’re in a crisis. There are so many apps that make it easy to learn about and incorporate mindfulness, like Headspace and OMG. I Can Meditate!.
Challenge your thoughts
Try challenging or “talking back” to your anxious thoughts. Ask yourself if your worry is realistic. What evidence supports it? How likely is it that it’ll come true? Stick to facts instead of feelings and remind yourself that while it might be possible, it’s not probable.
Questioning whether your worrying is helpful or useful is another option. Is it getting you closer to what you want (like making a good first impression or delivering a great presentation) or is it interfering? Taking a step back and remembering that it’s probably a familiar worry (and not a new threat) will help you gently shift your attention and avoid getting caught up in anxious thoughts. Apps like Worry Watch and What’s Up? Can also help you track and challenge your worries.
Being mindful and finding ways to relax are good places to start. But sometimes, it might not be enough. And while friends and family are supportive, they aren’t always a substitute for therapy.
Working with a licensed mental health care professional can be amazingly helpful, no matter what level your anxiety is at. Therapy can help you identify your worries and learn new ways to cope. It can also help you reflect on your resilience. Anxiety happens when we over-evaluate the likelihood of the worst-case scenario coming true and under-evaluate our ability to cope.
There are many different types of therapy, but cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based approaches like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are great options when it comes to anxiety. Regardless of the approach, at the end of the day, it’s all about the relationship. Good therapy should feel like teamwork. That’s why finding the right person to work with is so important.
Above all, the most important thing is to be familiar with your anxiety. Identify your triggers, know your symptoms, and understand what kind of help is available so that you can make the right decision for you.