How to tell the difference between an anxiety disorder and nagging thoughts
It took signing up for therapy to find the answer to the question I have always wanted to know: Is that constant uncomfortable, clenched feeling in my chest normal — or is it the sign of a bigger problem?
After working with a caring, nurturing therapist for a year and a half, I now know that my personal brand of anxiety — a chronic undercurrent of fear that plagues my day-to-day life — comes from my highly unstable childhood being raised by a mentally ill parent. For me, methods of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and daily meditation have worked wonders. My anxiety isn’t fixed, but I have experienced immense pockets of relief and peace that I never thought were possible.
If you too can’t look back over your life and pinpoint a time where you didn’t feel nervous, it may be a good idea to assess where you’re at. You could be struggling with habitual worry that is manageable with the right support system and behavioral changes, or you may have a chronic anxiety disorder that could benefit from some outside guidance.
Here’s how to tell when your daily anxiety requires professional help:
1. You find it difficult to function
Worrying about an upcoming deadline at work is totally normal. But when that worry spills over and begins to affect daily tasks, it may be time to ask for help, says Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and author. “It’s a matter of degree. If worrying impacts your functioning — because it impacts relationships or your ability to work, to sleep, to enjoy your life for more than a few weeks almost every day, then that is an anxiety disorder.”
This is a quick rule you can stick in your back pocket: Worry that disrupts your daily life should not be ignored. Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, continues, “If it is disrupting your ability to function (e.g., at home, at work, in school or in relationships) or causing extreme distress or disability in your life for an extended period of time, then it may have moved into the category of a disorder, and it may be worth considering seeking help from a mental health professional.”
2. Your family has noticed
More than one person pointing out your anxious eccentricities could be the reality check you need to finally seek help. I know that, for myself, it took years of gradually exposing my secret rituals to my husband and my sister — which included checking locks and windows multiple times before bed — before I was ready to admit that I needed professional help.
Dr. Mark Ettensohn, a clinical psychologist in Sacramento, California, agrees that if your loved ones have observed your worrisome behaviors, it may be time to take your anxiety seriously. Dr. Ettensohn describes a common sign of a severe anxiety issue: “It is causing significant distress for either the person or those around her. For instance, is the person really upset about the worries or behaviors, or is the person’s partner or family becoming concerned?”
3. You have physical symptoms
Remember that life-long, tight-chested feeling I was talking about? According to Dr. Nancy Simpkins, internist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey, that kind of physical manifestation of anxiety is not good — not good at all. Dr. Simpkins says because of its subtlety, anxiety can be difficult for doctors to diagnose and for patients to identify. Common physical symptoms of anxiety may include, “Elevated heart rate, with the feeling of palpitations; lightheadedness and feeling faint; and severe acid reflux not helped by medication.”
4. You have irrational fears
I have always thought that if anyone were able to crawl into my brain for just a second, they would be terrified by what they saw. Even my most innocent thoughts can quickly spiral out of control, and the next thing you know, I am picturing my entire family dying in a plane crash. As difficult as these thoughts are to squash at 2 a.m. when my mind is racing, they’re not unique. Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, N.C.S.P., licensed psychologist, says these “intrusive thoughts ” — as they’re often called among professionals and us anxious types — are a common sign of an anxiety disorder. She explains what it looks like when irrational thoughts escalate, “Fears such as getting into an elevator and being sure that you will never come out are not proportionate to reality. If the fear becomes overwhelming, disruptive and way out of proportion to the actual risk involved, it’s a telltale sign of phobia, a type of anxiety disorder.”
5. You can’t calm down
Maybe you’re just a worrywart — you tell yourself as the same fearful thoughts run on loop while you toss and turn all night. Maybe it runs in your family (one of my pet excuses). Tammy Whitten, licensed marriage and family therapist, says that while worry is a fact of life, it is the ability to calm yourself that can differentiate between general worry and an anxiety disorder. “There are certain things every individual tends to worry about, from money to why this body part is hurting to who will look after me when I’m older. But the difference between regular worry and an anxiety disorder can depend on whether you’re able to soothe yourself with facts when you’re feeling worried. It also depends on how long you’ve had that same worry (hours, days or even weeks).”
6. You worry about everything
This sign of anxiety can infiltrate your life so stealthily that it’s easy to overlook. One minute you’re worrying about your five-year plan, and the next minute, you’re searching Google for the dangers of pesticide exposure in utero when you’re not even pregnant yet. Dr. Bola Oyeyipo, family physician, points out that run-of-the-mill worry is directed at one particular issue, while “anxiety is a state of perpetual worry about everything. Things that should not cause worry take a life of their own and cause you severe distress.”
7. You worry more often than not
If you take anything away from this article, I hope it is this: One big red flag mental health professionals and physicians look for when diagnosing an anxiety disorder is what Dr. Traci Lowenthal, clinical psychologist, calls “clinically significant impairment.” This simply means that your kind of worry happens more often than not, on most days of the week for more than six months at a time. This type of constant worry is not typical, and when coupled with other issues like isolation, avoidance and fatigue, it can greatly compromise your quality of life.
Dr. Ben Michaelis, SheKnows Expert, clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing, says, “The key difference between an anxiety disorder and simple worrying has to do with time and space. Situations that involve uncertainty tend to make everyone worry at least a little bit, but if you find that your worries are taking up a lot of time in your life (especially outside of specific triggering events) and significant space in your mind, then it may mean that you are struggling with some type of anxiety disorder.”
As Dr. Lowenthal urges, if anxiety has overtaken your life, it is never too late to ask for help. She tells SheKnows, “If anxiety is extreme and impacts you on a regular basis, reaching out for assistance from your physician or therapist can help you create tools and strategies to lessen your anxiety.”
This article was originally published on SheKnows