Nearly one in 10 Americans suffers from some form of anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental-health concern of our time.
Anxiety is less stigmatizing than other mental-health issues, in part because few of us live an entirely anxiety-free existence: We all feel worried from time to time. A certain amount of anxiety is normal and unavoidable — and can even be motivating.
Chronic, severe anxiety, on the other hand, can be downright debilitating. It takes an enormous toll on our bodies, our daily functioning, and our overall well-being.
To understand anxiety, it’s important to differentiate the feeling from fear, its not-so-distant cousin.
Identifying anxiety: Fear is a primal emotion that generates physical changes known as the fight-or-flight response. If a bear charges you while you’re on a hike, you feel fear; it’s an adaptable and essential response to an actual threat.
Anxiety, in contrast, is the anticipation of future threats — sort of like worrying about bears when you aren’t even in the woods.
Unfortunately, our bodies don’t necessarily differentiate between the two. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders frequently experience a milder version of the charging-bear response — even while safe at home.
Common among anxiety sufferers is a sense of restlessness. This can manifest physically (think jittery legs or constant fidgeting), as well as mentally (distractibility). They may also feel a constant spring-loaded tension throughout the body and suffer backaches, headaches, stomachaches, and other symptoms as a result.
Because anxiety takes such a toll on the body, worriers are prone to exhaustion even when they get a solid eight hours of shuteye — though for many, sleep can be elusive.
Finally, anxiety takes a toll on mood. Depression is often a companion to anxiety, in part because constantly worrying about the future can leave them drained and demoralized — hallmark symptoms of depression.
And anxiety also goes hand-in-hand with irritability. After all, who wouldn’t snap at the slightest provocation when they constantly feel on edge?
Plus, there are several subsets of anxiety, including social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and panic disorder. (For more on these subsets, see “High Anxiety.”)
Treating anxiety: Fortunately, anxiety is highly treatable with supportive strategies.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: CBT aims to identify thoughts and beliefs associated with anxiety, then systematically challenge their veracity. Individuals learn to replace automatic, anxiety-inducing thoughts (Everyone will laugh at me if I admit I’m struggling with the project) with more rational thoughts (Probably no one will laugh — and if they do, that’s their problem, not mine).
- Exposure therapy: Common for phobias such as public speaking, this approach involves incrementally exposing oneself to the anxiety-provoking situation while deliberately activating the body’s relaxation response.
- Mindfulness: When worries run amok, meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, and body scans help rein them back in.
- Medication: Psychotropic medications have been shown to effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety. Yet, because other forms of treatment are as or more effective without the risk of addiction, medications are often considered as a backup rather than first-line treatment.
When to Seek Help for Anxiety
If you’re struggling with anxiety and unsure whether to seek help or ride it out, consider the following factors.
Frequency and duration: Occasional anxiety is normal. Anxiety that flares up almost every day and persists for months on end is a different story. Six months or more of daily or near-daily anxiety should be a red flag.
Intensity and impact: One way to recognize the difference between normative and pathological anxiety is to consider how it affects your life. Are you missing work or canceling plans? Is it hard to relax even when you’re engaging in enjoyable activities? These are signs of a bigger problem.
Context: Sometimes life throws us into situations that are inherently stressful. Anxiety in the midst of a divorce, job loss, or other major change — including positive changes, such as having a baby or starting a new job — may naturally dissipate as you adjust to the situation. But if you’re still anxious when things stabilize or anxiety is your status quo, you may want to seek help.