Most of us try to avoid feeling worried or anxious. No one likes the uncomfortable tightness in the stomach, the difficulty concentrating, or tossing and turning in bed. When it is severe, worrying can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health. But fear is a natural part of life, and can even serve a useful purpose. So, how can you tell whether your anxious feelings are healthy or out of control? Here are some questions to help you understand whether your worried thoughts are helping or hurting.
Are worried thoughts keeping you safe?
The feeling of fear that keeps you from walking too close to the edge of a cliff is helping you stay alive! But fear not connected to a real threat is not helpful, and we call it anxiety. Fear of drowning in the ocean--especially if you don’t know how to swim--is realistic. It might keep you alive. But fear of drowning that comes from just thinking about the ocean, even while you are sitting on dry land, is probably anxiety.
How intense is your worry? Is it appropriate for the amount of risk you are facing?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if fear is realistic or not. Some situations in life are not clearly safe or clearly dangerous, but somewhere in between. If you are feeling anxious before giving a toast at a wedding, is that worry based on a realistic risk? Some people would say yes, since no one wants to be embarrassed in front of a crowd of people. However, it’s worth checking whether or not your worry is in proportion to the risk you face. Having an anxious night before giving your wedding toast? Probably pretty reasonable. Losing sleep for days or weeks leading up to the wedding? Could be anxiety.
Is your worry telling you to take action to solve a problem?
Sometimes fearful thoughts are a clue that some action needs to be taken. On the other hand, worrying about things that are out of your control is generally not helpful. If you are worried about taking a test, maybe your brain is telling you that you want to be better prepared. But if you have finished the test and are still worrying about it, the worry probably isn’t helping you.
Is your worrying stopping you from doing what you want to do in the world?
Worrying becomes a serious problem when it limits your ability to function in the world. If your anxiety about flying is not just uncomfortable but actually prevents you from getting on a plane, then it may be time to ask for help.
How long does your worrying usually last? Do you feel it most of the time?
When someone feels unrealistic fears a lot of the time – every day, or most days, for weeks or months at a time, healthcare professionals call it chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety is a problem because it means your nervous system and body are “on alert” for danger all the time. Our bodies are designed to handle stressful situations and then to rest and recover. With chronic anxiety, there is no chance to recover, and physical health can suffer.
What can you do if you think you have an anxiety problem?
If you find that you worry often and it is stronger than is warranted by your life situation, if you can’t help worrying about things that are out of your control, or if your anxiety is preventing you from doing life activities, then you may want to do something about it. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Fortunately, there are good options for reducing anxiety. Many people get relief from doing self-care activities such as mindfulness meditation or relaxation techniques. There’s good evidence that professional support such as psychotherapy and anxiety medications can also be effective in certain situations. Your Rite Aid Pharmacist can answer questions about prescriptions medicines for anxiety.
“What are Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health. Revised May 2015. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
“Help with Anxiety Disorders.” American Psychiatric Association. Reviewed May 2015. http://www.psychiatry.org/anxiety-disorders