More than 18.9% of all Americans face a mental health disorder. Of those, anxiety is the most common. While anxiety disorder ranges from relatively mild to extremely severe, an estimated 40 million U.S. adults suffer from it. At the same time, only a few more than half of all persons with anxiety disorder are ever diagnosed, and less than 37% ever get treatment. This is critical, because anxiety disorder treatment is highly effective in reducing progression or worsening of the disorder, improving quality of life, and preventing further complications and health problems.
Most of us think of anxiety as fear or worry about a situation, but when is it more than just being anxious? When is “anxiety” part of a larger anxiety disorder? Eventually, anxiety disorders can often be self-defeating, in that many people worry they are making things up, that things aren’t as severe as they seem, or that they will be a burden on the healthcare system or their friends and families if they have a problem. No matter how you feel, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no shame in having a mental illness, getting help will help you reduce side effects including the burden on people around you, and getting help will eventually benefit you and your mental health to improve your life.
If you think you might have a mental health disorder like anxiety, the following information might help. At the same time, it’s always important to talk to your doctor for any medical advice, including about your mental health.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder(s)
While most people think of anxiety as a single mental health disorder, the anxiety disorder spectrum is actually very broad. The DSM5, the leading manual on mental health disorders, currently recognizes 7 different anxiety disorders as well as 5 stress and trauma disorders. The anxiety disorders include:
General anxiety disorder
Separation anxiety disorder
You can infer, from this, that anxiety disorders are a broad spectrum of mental illness. Therefore, anxiety disorders include a broad range of symptoms. In addition, anxiety is the primary symptom of other disorders such as PTSD. This means, you, as a layman, cannot diagnose whether your symptoms are symptoms of anxiety or not, because anxiety is a broad spectrum, your symptoms might point to something else, and mental health is complicated.
General anxiety disorder is a broader “umbrella” category for anxiety. Its symptoms include:
Feeling tense or “wound up”
Fatigue or lethargy
Mental fog or difficulty concentrating
Irritability or mood swings
Muscle tension, teeth grinding, or muscle pain
Unreasonable feelings of worry
Sleep problems, insomnia, or restlessness
If you have a panic disorder, those symptoms might include heart palpitations, sweating, sensations of choking or being unable to breathe, feelings of hopelessness or impending doom, or feelings of being out of control.
What is normal? Normal for most people depends on the environment they’re used to. People who are accustomed to feeling anxious think that anxiety is normal in whatever dose they’re used it in. And, if anxiety slowly escalates over time, it may become your new normal without you ever realizing it. So, for most people, recognizing anxiety isn’t about sudden onsets of new feelings, but rather, stepping back and recognizing that their mental health and environment are not good.
Anxiety is a normal part of life for many people. It can be perfectly healthy. For example, anxiety might ensure that you turn your stove off before you leave, keep you conscientious of showing up on time for work, or remind you to change the batteries in your smoke detector. Some examples of normal anxiety include:
Controllable worry about your job or major factors in your life like a relationship, children, etc., you should be able to resolve this worry with logical thought, discussing problems with a loved one, or thinking about how to resolve those sources of worry
Embarrassment or feeling self-conscious over making a mistake or having to perform in a social situation. E.g., talking in public, tripping, being wrong, mixing up words, etc.
Sweating or nerves before a major event such as an event, a date, speaking in public, etc.
Fear of dangerous objects or situations
Anxiety and sadness following a traumatic event
Those same feelings can morph into unhealthy aspects of the same emotion.
Constant feelings worry about things that are not actually problems, which you cannot dissuade with logic or solutions
Avoiding social situations for fear of being embarrassed, feeling bad in social situations because you don’t engage because you feel like you will do something wrong, etc.
Panic attacks or paralyzing anxiety typically starting from a trigger (like a traffic jam, speaking in public, etc.), and eventually triggering off of small and unreasonable things like fear of having a panic attack
Fear of or avoidance of objects and things to the point of irrationality. E.g., not getting in a car because it might crash.
Long-term anxiety, sleeplessness, or flashbacks following a traumatic event.
In most cases, anxiety is judged by its ability to affect your life. If you can’t reason away or rationalize anxiety, you might want to talk to a professional. If anxiety prevents or often stops you from doing things, you want to talk to a professional. And, if anxiety affects your life in a noticeable way, getting a diagnosis might help you to both treat the problem and prevent it from getting worse.
A Professional Assessment
If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety, a professional assessment and diagnosis or prognosis is the only way forward. Chances are, if anxiety is affecting your life, you have a symptom of a mental health disorder. Whether that is anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, a nutritional disorder, or something else fully depends on your symptoms. It’s important to seek out a professional diagnosis, so that your entire health and mental health can be taken into account for the diagnosis.
Get Help Sooner, Not Later
Most anxiety disorders start out relatively mild and slowly escalate over time. This is caused by a combination of vicious cycles where coping mechanisms result in feeling worse and poorer mental health, by long-term exposure to traumatic behaviors and mental patterns, and long-term exposure to an environment. Waiting 1, 2, or 10 years will only make your problems worse, while raising the chance of complications like PTSD. The longer you wait to get treatment, the worse symptoms will be and the harder anxiety will be to treat.
That’s important because anxiety is very treatable. While many people have a mental image of anxiety as a life-long problem, that’s only true of chronic anxiety. Many people can seek treatment and recover much of their mental health or even eventually make a complete recovery. While this might not be the case for you, it’s important to seek treatment and alleviate symptoms before they worsen.
If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, see a professional. Even if you don’t think your symptoms are serious enough to call for a professional diagnosis, they’re clearly serious enough that you looked it up. Taking the time to ensure that you don’t need medical assistance is relatively simple and it could improve your quality of life long-term.