How do I know if my anxiety is a problem?

Expert advice on managing worry and knowing when to get help

Anxiety is a normal, expected, and common experience in life. As human beings, we worry about keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, and anxiety is an important evolutionary tool to ensure our survival. But in the era of constant news and information about potential threats to our safety, it can be hard to determine what is reasonable to worry about – and when your level of anxiety becomes problematic.

Worrying is often very useful. When our worries help us pay the bills on time, remember to get to appointments, or work toward important life goals, we are rewarded for worrying. When worrying leads to effective planning and making positive, healthy choices, it serves us well. It makes sense to worry when we are able to change a potentially negative outcome into a positive outcome.

As anxiety experts Amy Wenzel, Ph.D., and Karen Kleiman, LCSW mention in their helpful book, Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood, it's ok to "worry well." We can choose what's helpful to worry about, and what isn't.

But anxiety can also become a problem. Many people worry about the future by catastrophizing, or assuming the very worst will happen. We think that if we assume the worst, we will be prepared for whatever happens. We also predict that we will be relieved if what happens isn't the worst possible outcome we've imagined.

Unfortunately, there are gaps in that logic. Anxiety is not preventative, like a flu shot. Unlike studying for a test, there are many times when worrying cannot prevent a bad outcome or ensure a good one. And even in situations when it can help us to prepare, anxiety is only helpful up to a point. After that, it can have negative side effects.

The psychological experience of anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as an elevated heart rate, more rapid, shallow breathing, muscle tension, disrupted sleep, and gastrointestinal distress. Chronic anxiety can create a vicious cycle in which we are constantly on edge. When we feel constantly on edge, we often end up worrying more. And when we worry excessively and feel physically unwell, we are less able to cope effectively with stress. That's where a lot of us get stuck.  

It's important to recognize when anxiety is becoming a problem for you because it is a very treatable condition. If your anxiety is starting to affect many areas of your life, or if it is not getting better, it may be time for professional help. A mental health professional can help you to sort through what you're experiencing and find relief.

Consider talking with a mental health professional if your anxiety is:

• Causing changes in your sleep or appetite
• Making it difficult to concentrate
• Leading you to use alcohol or drugs to cope
• Prompting you to develop rituals or compulsions to manage your worry
• Interfering with your relationships
• Causing panic attacks or flashbacks of past trauma
• Making you avoid social situations
• Resulting in restlessness, fatigue, irritability, or muscle tension on a regular basis  

There are many ways to effectively address anxiety, many of which are free and can be practiced on a daily basis. These strategies include exercise, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness exercises, including guided imagery and meditation. Or you may benefit from psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

You can always consult a mental health professional for extra support, no matter what you're experiencing. Anxiety is a very common and well-understood condition, and with the appropriate support, you can start to shift the way your anxiety works and feel better.