Constantly worried? It might be time to seek help.
f your stomach has ever filled with butterflies before a big presentation at work or your palms got sweaty while waiting to see the dentist, then you know what anxiety feels like. Mild jitters like these do actually serve an evolutionary purpose. “Anxiety is tied to the fight or flight state,” explains Elizabeth Ward, Ph.D., a psychologist and performance coach in the Boston area. “It allows us to perform at a higher level by producing adrenaline and other hormones that give us energy and optimizes our bodies to pump blood to our lungs and hearts to get us moving.”
This chain reaction can be helpful in reasonable doses, but it goes overboard in people with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), says Dianne Chambless, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “Just experiencing anxiety in itself isn’t a problem,” she says. “It’s when the anxiety is so severe it’s making your life miserable or interfering with your work, your relationships, your ability to enjoy hobbies or activities.”
The National Institute of Mental Health characterizes people with GAD as displaying “excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least six months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances.”
When determining whether her clients’ anxiety is a normal response to stress or a diagnosable disorder, owner and therapist at Seaside Counseling Center Rachel (Bauder) Cohen, MSW, LCSW, asks them to consider how it’s affecting their lives. “There is a fine line between healthy and unhealthy stress,” she explains. “If your stress feels like it is taking over your life and you can’t get control over it, it is happening frequently, then it is probably more than your average stress.”
So how do you know whether your anxiety is totally normal or something you need an expert’s help to handle? Here are a few signs to consider.
The number one sign of a generalized anxiety disorder is a constant worry that gets in the way of doing everyday tasks. Most of us have a little worry-wort in the back of our heads, but if it becomes disruptive, you may have GAD. In general, Chambless says thoughts typically associated with generalized anxiety disorders are two-fold:
- Thinking it’s highly likely that something bad is going to happen.
- Thinking that if that something bad does happen, it would be truly awful.
For example, we all get a little jittery before a big presentation at work. But if you worry that you’re going to totally blow it, and that you’ll lose your job as a result, you may have GAD.
You have trouble falling — and staying — asleep.
Stress and anxiety can cause or exacerbate existing sleeping problems, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Mentally running through your to-do list can keep you up at night, especially if you find yourself fixated on everything you have to get done. And the relationship between sleep and anxiety is a vicious cycle. Missing out on sufficient sleep can also aggravate anxiety. “If you’re consistently getting less than enough, your body’s not working at its top level, which makes you more susceptible to feeling anxious,” says Ward.
Your ability to sleep well isn’t the only way anxiety impacts your body. According to the Mayo Clinic, other physical symptoms associated with anxiety include:
- Muscle tension, aches, and pains
- Nausea, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome
You frequently stress about your relationship.
Anxiety also impacts the people around you, especially those with whom you spend the most time or rely on for support. That means it can take a real toll on your close friendships, or romantic relationships, Chambless says. Anxious people may not trust that their relationships are solid and secure, leading them to seek reassurance over, and over, and over. People with overwhelming anxiety can also be on edge and irritable as a result, which can definitely have a negative impact on your relationships.
Bauder Cohen notes that anxiety impacting your relationships is one of the markers to watch out for if you suspect yours is getting out of control. “If you feel like your stress is taking over your life and you are feeling lost with how to handle it, it is probably a great time to seek out counseling,” she adds.
You dwell a lot on your appearance.
Most of us notice a new wrinkle or zit has popped up overnight, spackle a little makeup on it, and go on with our day. But people with an anxiety disorder sometimes become overly fixated on how they look.
“A person who’s more anxious might obsesses about their appearance before they leave the house, ruminate on it more during the day, or even say, ‘Gosh, I don’t want to go to that dinner tonight because I don’t like the way that I look,'” Ward explains.
You avoid social situations.
Many people with GAD find social situations stressful because they imagine others are judging them or they may do something to invite criticism. To keep anxiety at bay, someone with GAD might skip out on events that could trigger it. But the anxious person isn’t the only one who suffers – their spouses and relationships also take a hit. “It restricts the spouse’s world as well as the world of the person who has the problem,” Chambless says.
You’re constantly comparing yourself to others.
Social status comes up a lot among Ward’s clients. While it’s common for the green monster to rear its ugly head once in a while, it goes beyond momentary envy in people with an anxiety disorder. The prevalence of social media only exacerbates the issue, with people posting the idealized versions of their lives online. Ward says that comparing your life to other people can become an obsession in people with anxiety, and can only lead to even more negative thinking.
You struggle with drugs or alcohol.
While there’s no proof that substance abuse can cause GAD or vice versa, there may be a link between the two. Approximately 20% of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder also have an alcohol or other substance use disorder. About 20% of people with a substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder, according to the ADAA.
“Anxiety problems tend to start before substance abuse,” Chambless explains. “We think at least some people start using drugs to self-medicate.” Drinking a light to moderate amount of alcohol isn’t a problem in and of itself, but consider why you’re pouring yourself that glass of vino. If it has to do with turning down the volume between your ears, consider mentioning it to a therapist.
What to Do If You’re Dealing With Anxiety
If you recognize yourself in any of these situations, consider making an appointment with a mental health professional. Bauder Cohen also notes that you don’t have to wait until a crisis takes over your life, either. “If you have had anxiety in the past or know you are going to be experiencing a stressful quarter at work, it is a great idea to start counseling now,” she explains.
•Practice mindfulness at home. In addition to seeking professional advice, consider taking proactive steps to manage your anxiety at home. Experts recommend sleeping for at least seven hours each night to avoid negative effects on your mood, focus, and decision-making. Regular exercise also helps produce mood-boosting endorphins, Ward explains. Bauder Cohen also recommends journaling and meditation, which can help you slow down racing thoughts and calm your breathing, which can help with physical symptoms like a pounding heart or nervous stomach. If you don’t know where to begin, try a meditation or anxiety-management app to help.
Bauder Cohen also suggests taking your thoughts to trial when negative or anxious thinking starts to take over. She suggests writing down one thought and everything that supports and refutes it. “Be your own prosecutor and defense attorney,” she says. “Verifiable thoughts only, no opinions! You then have a logical meeting with yourself as the judge and figure out a way to rationally rephrase the thought into an honest, true, and helpful thought.”
•Know you’re not alone. If you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety, it isn’t anything to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. And you’re in good company. Over 40 million U.S. adults have it, according to the ADAA, and that number is likely underreported. Seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. “It takes courage and vulnerability to own your thoughts and feelings and not just push them away,” Bauder Cohen explains. Help is out there, and you don’t have to suffer in silence.