When Normal Worry Becomes Clinical Anxiety
Worry and nervousness are common, normal reactions to stressful situations that inevitably occur in our daily lives. However, when worrying becomes chronic and disrupts your ability to function and/or engage with others, this may warrant an assessment for an anxiety disorder. Often, people have difficulty differentiating a normal from an abnormal reaction to a stressor. Normal stress reactions are more transient and the intensity of the reaction tends to match the intensity of the stressor. For example, if a person is nervous about giving a presentation, the nervousness may include sweaty palms and a slightly increased heart rate. Alternatively, clinical anxiety tends to be more chronic and much more intense than what would be expected given the intensity of the stressor. Thus, a person with an anxiety disorder who is anxious about giving a presentation may experience a full-on panic attack and/or avoid the presentation altogether. Signs that your anxiety has reached a clinical level and that you may be in need of psychological and/or psychopharmacological intervention (i.e., counseling and/or anti-anxiety medication) include the following:
Your worry occurs almost every day for 6 months or more. Many people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder worry about multiple things that are beyond their control. The worry is persistent and difficult to stop.
Physical symptoms accompany the worry. Restlessness, agitation, tense muscles, tiring easily, trouble concentrating, and having difficulty sleeping are some of the physical manifestations of anxiety.
You experience panic attacks. Panic attacks include an intense fear that peaks and then subsides within minutes. People often feel as if they may be having a heart attack. Often, there is an increase in heart rate (“pounding” heart), chest pain, and/or tightness in the chest. Panic attacks often induce sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, tingling hands and feet, abdominal discomfort, and/or fear that you might lose control or die.
You avoid social situations because you fear you might embarrass yourself by showing your anxiety symptoms and/or having a panic attack. Some people with Social Anxiety Disorder also fear ridicule and scrutiny by their peers.
Your anxiety causes significant distress in your life, including in social and occupational settings. Normal worry can be undesirable and frustrating, but the worry is not so pervasive that it prevents you from having positive, meaningful social relationships and from being able to perform well at work. However, with an anxiety disorder, you may notice that relationships and work performance suffer.
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can significantly hinder social and occupational functioning. Seeking treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy will assist you in identifying and modifying environmental factors, thought patterns, and behaviors that may be increasing your anxiety. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be warranted. Such medications do have risks and side effects, but the reduction in anxiety can be quite relieving. Oversight by a prescriber who specializes in treating anxiety will be most beneficial. Overall, treatment for anxiety has been shown to be quite effective in reducing the number of distressing symptoms one experiences from having and Anxiety Disorder, and quality of life often improves with treatment.