When Does Anxiety Become a Mental Health Problem?

We’ve all suffered from some form of anxiety, but when does anxiety stop being a normal reaction to stressful events and tip over into being a mental health problem?

As a mental health problem, anxiety can sometimes be a difficult one to spot. We’ve probably all had those moments just before a big speech or going to meet a new group of people where our stomach flips, we sweat and maybe when it’s something we’re not particularly looking forward to, a sense of dread might take hold.

For people with an anxiety disorder, though, this problem is usually much more severe and long lasting.  I’ve described my own personal experience with anxiety here, but to put it in more general terms, anxiety disorders tend to hinge on a few specific behaviors that aren’t normal responses to things going on in our lives. These include:

Our sense of anxiety being out of proportion to a stressful situation.

For instance, you’ve got a presentation to do for class or work. It’s normal to feel some anxiety and maybe even not sleep much the night before. However, if this impending sense of dread and panic occurs months before the event and is so intense that you are consistently losing sleep, suffering panic attacks or other stress-related symptoms, despite the fact that the stressful event is weeks away, this response is out of proportion to the situation and so could be a clue that you have an anxiety disorder.

Our sense of anxiety continuing after the event.

You’ve done the big presentation, you should be feeling relieved that, at the very least, it’s all over with and you can move on. People with anxiety disorders can’t, though. They may fixate on the stressful event and continue to feel worried or even panicked as they pick over every detail of what happened.

Our sense of anxiety not being connected to stressful events.

Imagine feeling a tightness in your chest, the tingling in your hands and the dry mouth that comes with anxiety. Then imagine that not being connected to any stressful situation at all but instead just creeping up on you while you sit reading or are out enjoying a film with friends. This sudden appearance of anxiety independent of the situation is one of the distinguishing features of an anxiety problem and it can be particularly draining because it is hard for other people to understand that there is no external cause for your feelings.

Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable.

How Do You Treat an Anxiety Disorder?

Treatment usually centers on a combination of behavioral therapies and medication.

Psychological therapy might include careful, gradual exposure to the things that cause us anxiety. For instance if a person suffers specific phobias like a fear of social interaction, or things like being in confined spaces, they can be taught to build up their tolerance to these situations steadily and in a controlled way until their anxiety is manageable even when faced with the things they fear in their day to day lives.

Other therapies teach different techniques to try to cope better with anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us to spot the early signs of anxiety, like negative thought patterns, and gives various strategies that we might use to take control of the problem before it becomes severe.

Sometimes anxiety disorders will need to be treated with medication though. While a variety of treatments can be given depending on the patients’ particular needs and other conditions, the most common treatment is from the antidepressant family called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that help the body increase its levels of available serotonin, the feelgood chemical that can help elevate mood and thereby keep anxiety in check.

SSRIs are also a good choice as they can treat symptoms of depression too, a condition that tends to overlap with anxiety disorders.

But what causes anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are not connected to any kind of emotional weakness or personal failing. The science that we have on this subject suggests that anxiety disorders, like many mental health problems, are a result of a combination of factors both biological and environmental. People with anxiety disorders tend to have altered brain chemistry, so we know that the problem is a physical one in many respects. However, precisely what causes this is a bit more complicated. People who have suffered a trauma early on in life, such as abuse or the loss of a parent, tend to develop anxiety and certain mood disorders. Extreme stress at any age also tends to tally with developing an anxiety problem.

Whatever the type of anxiety disorder you may suffer, its important to know that it is a relatively common problem — about 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older (18% of U.S. population) suffer from some form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives — and that is highly treatable, but only if you seek medical help.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

85 comments

Kamia T.
Kamia T4 years ago

I'm getting a bit tired of every human condition now somehow being labeled as a medical problem, so that it can be treated; controlled and even have people pointing their fingers at the person undergoing it. Anxiety may continue after the end of an event -- often for good reason, if it were traumatic enough. That doesn't mean you're ill. It just means that some things take longer to process and adjust to than others.

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Marucha C.
Marucha C.4 years ago

Hmm -- my last link didnt work. I'll try again:
www.gotmag.org

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Marucha C.
Marucha C.4 years ago

Anyone suffering from unusual, ongoing and troubling anxiety or depression should start reading about the crucial role minerals and diet play in our health and mental health. Doctors talk about "chemical imbalances" but they don't dig into WHAT those imbalances are. Chances are that you are highly deficient in magnesium. Rx drugs may help one's mood, but they actually further deplete the underlying mineral conditions that are strong players in anxiety and depression. Even if one feels compelled to take such drugs for awhile, it is essential to try to give the body what it really needs. Here are a few links for anyone seeking better mental health through better physical health:

http://george-eby-research.com/html/depression-anxiety.html

http://m.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201106/magnesium-and-the-brain-the-original-chill-pill

http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/05/20/magnesium-the-most-powerful-relaxation-mineral-available/

This is a "closed group" that one can join to link up with many people who are naturally supporting/curing mood and health issues with minerals and dietary changes. Of course there are others. Please understand that anyone suffering from terrible anxiety has underlying health issues that are NOT being addressed by SSRI's. you didn't develop anxiety/panic disorder/depression because of a lack of SSRI's in your life. It is truly a shame that most allopathic doctors are terribly ignorant about basic biochemistry and nutrition.

htt

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JL A.
JL A4 years ago

good to be aware of and consider when interacting with others

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Carol Johnson
Carol Johnson4 years ago

Thanks..noted

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Julia Oleynik
Julia Oleynik4 years ago

Thank you for sharing

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Lorraine Andersen

Thanks for letting people know. Not many realize how bad anxiety can be.

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Sheyla V.
Sheyla V4 years ago

Thank you for bringing attention to this.

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Renee M.
Renee M4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

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Marilyn L.
Marilyn J. L4 years ago

I use meds occasionally for anxiety, but I use meds daily for bipolar syndrome. Thank goodness they're available! When there's a continuing chemical imbalance in the brain, long-term use of meds makes sense (I used therapy also to change my behavior.).

Without these meds, I'd be dead.

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