Anxiety is one of the most commonly experienced emotions, yet one of the most confusing. Everyone will experience anxiety at some point in their life, which is completely NORMAL and expected. But how do you know when it is time to seek professional help for your anxiety? How do you know when the anxiety is no longer typical and now at a point where it can be diagnosed formally as a disorder? These are questions I am asked often by potential clients, so much so that I felt it would be beneficial for me to create this post to assist people in deciding for themselves whether an intervention (i.e. therapy) is needed. Now before we dive in, please know that there is A LOT to cover in regards to anxiety and if this post is too long, I know I am going to lose people. So, in an effort to give you the best bang for your buck, I am going to try to get to the point. That said, this post should not be your sole reference for information on anxiety and further research and professional consult should be done. Think of this more as a helpful starting point!
What is Anxiety, anyways?
Quite frankly, anxiety is a pain in the neck (sometimes even literally!). But in all seriousness, anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Anxiety is an emotion we experience which then impacts our thought process and behaviors. It can be difficult to understand, so below are some helpful examples which may give you a better picture of what typical anxiety looks like vs. what an anxiety disorder may look like:
Typical Anxiety: There is a big test at school. You value your education and want to do well. You may feel anxious about the test, knowing there is a lot of material to cover and work to do to prepare for that. So, you channel that anxiety and use it to come up with a study plan. You know you have a test coming up, but you are not spending too much time over thinking about it and are able to still do other things (i.e. play sports, spend time with peers, etc) in conjunction to ensuring you have enough study time. When the test day comes, you are anxious about it but are able to eat your breakfast, go to the class, and take the exam without an issue. After the exam, you may have some anxiety around how you did, but you are able to participate in your other daily activities without the worry about the outcome consuming your thoughts.
Anxiety Disorder: There is a big test at school. You value your education and want to do well. You may feel anxious about the test, knowing there is a lot of material to cover and work to do to prepare for that. You instantly begin thinking about the exam, over and over. Your thoughts almost feel uncontrollable, as if they cannot be turned off. You start thinking about a study plan, but then even that feels overwhelming and almost too much. You feel like shutting down because it is all just too much to deal with. You are unable to stop thinking about the exam, even during other activities such as sports, or hanging out with peers. You may find yourself thinking negative thoughts, some of them even irrational (i.e. “If I fail this, I will not pass this class”, “I will not graduate”, “I will never pass anything ever again”). You find it difficult to sleep, difficult to concentrate while studying, may find yourself feeling irritable in general, and may start to experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, labored breathing, nausea, sweating, or shaking. The test day comes and you cannot eat. You may feel so overwhelmed that you want to skip the exam all together and come up with an excuse as to why you cannot take it. If you muster up the courage to take the exam, you find it difficult to focus and when you complete the exam, you will be thinking about the outcome of how you did, over and over again.
See the difference? Both scenarios highlight that there is a feeling of anxiety, however, the second scenario highlights what someone who has an anxiety disorder may be experiencing. Now, does the second scenario mean that is EXACTLY what anxiety needs to look like to be considered a disorder? No. In fact, there are many kinds of anxiety disorders, all with their own unique symptoms, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Separation Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to name a few. I know, it is a lot. But it seems scarier than it is. I like to explain anxiety to my clients as a big umbrella, with all the subtypes below it. Like I said in the beginning of this post, there is a lot in regards to anxiety and it can be quite difficult to understand, which is likely why people struggle with whether or not they have an anxiety disorder in the first place.
The most important step in deciphering whether or not you may benefit from services for your anxiety is knowing yourself. The biggest difference between typical anxiety and an anxiety disorder is the impact on your daily functioning. Take a moment to reflect on these questions. If you answer “YES” to any of them, then ask yourself this follow-up question: “Is this something I experience consistently/daily/regularly or is this something I have experienced when something significant was going on in my life, but is not the norm?”
Do your loved ones tell you that you need to “relax” or “calm down” often?
Do you find you are often overreacting to situations which do not warrant that level of stress?
Do you find yourself focusing on negatives often?
Do you find yourself having trouble sleeping because you have so much on your mind?
Do you find yourself thinking about things which bother you, over and over?
Does your mind feel like it just won’t “shut off”?
Do you feel drained by the constant stress of things going on in your life?
Do you feel debilitated at times by your fears and worries?
Do you feel like you are missing out on life because of your worries?
Do you experience physical symptoms when anxious, or even when not anxious, such as stomach aches, labored breathing, heart racing, headaches, sweating, shaking, biting or picking your nails?
If you answered “yes” to some of these questions, but feel those symptoms do not apply to you regularly or consistently, that’s typical. We all have times where we overreact, can’t sleep, or have something weighing heavy on our minds. However, if you answered “yes” to any of these questions because you experience them consistently, regularly, or daily and believe they are negatively impacting your daily functioning, then keep reading.
How can therapy be helpful?
Therapy can be helpful for many reasons when treating anxiety disorders, mainly in helping individuals feel as though they have control over their life again. Therapy is a safe, confidential space where you can share your biggest fears and concerns without judgement or concern of others finding out. This level of honesty and vulnerability will allow you to tap into your inner fears and worries more successfully vs. feeling closed off. Therapists are trained in various techniques which allow for them to help you identify symptoms, identify triggers, learn more about your specific symptoms, learn more about a potential diagnosis, learn skills to manage your symptoms, limit the negative impact on your daily functioning, as well as have a space to process all of this with the support and guidance of a trained professional.
I often get asked if medication is needed to treat anxiety disorders and the answer is very subjective. Can medication be helpful in treating anxiety disorders? Yes. Does an anxiety disorder mean you automatically need medication? No. Are there alternatives to treatment of anxiety aside from medication, in conjunction with therapy? Yes (i.e. natural supplements, acupuncture, physical exercise, change in diet, etc). This is a personal decision that should be made once a formal assessment is done with a trained medical professional (i.e. a psychiatrist, nurse practitioner, or primary care physician). I find that many people avoid seeking treatment for their anxiety out of fear of immediately being put on medication. Please know, generally speaking, it does not work that way. I can not speak for every provider but generally speaking, therapists will listen to your concerns, assess your symptoms, and discuss treatment options which work best for you, not just automatically send you to a medical provider. Remember, anxiety may make you feel like you have no control, but you do have control over your treatment.
If you are reading this and feeling as though you may have an anxiety disorder, don’t panic. And for those of you who are anxious and reading that, I know you are still panicking a little bit. But that is ok. Anxiety is treatable and can be very well-managed once the appropriate skills are learned and implemented. As I noted in the introduction, this post should not be your sole reference for anxiety and you should consult with a mental health professional before assuming you automatically meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. (I guarantee some of you have already self-diagnosed yourselves, WebMD style). Also, super important to note! Even if you do not meet criteria for an anxiety disorder, but feel as though anxiety can be disruptive at times in your life, therapy can still be helpful for you, too!
Ok, so now you are considering therapy may be a helpful option, but where do you start?
The website psychologytoday.com is a wonderful resource to find local therapists in your area. Additionally, asking your primary care physician for referrals or asking your insurance carrier for a list of providers in network are also great ways to start. Call therapists and do phone consults, ask questions about their areas of expertise and their treatment options. Remember, this is YOUR treatment, so you are allowed to be picky and find someone you feel most comfortable with. And for all of you who are reading this, probably more anxious now than when you first started. Breathe. You will be ok! Just because you suffer from anxiety does not mean you have to suffer forever. There is hope.
I would LOVE to know what spoke to you today and encourage you to comment below and share with me!
If you are interested in learning more about my therapy services, check out my website HERE. Seeking mental health services can be daunting and if you are finding my posts resonate with you, it is likely you are feeling ready to take that next step to work on leading a happier, healthier life! I would LOVE to support you in starting this journey and welcome you to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ALSO! Check out my FREE “How Do I know If Therapy Is Right For Me” printable to start the process of deciding whether or not taking this next step is right for YOU! Just add your name + email address below and you will receive an email with a link to your FREEBIE!