How Do You Know When Your Anxiety Is Really an Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety is one of the most common co-occurring disorders with addiction. Nearly 18% of people with substance use disorders experienced the symptoms of an anxiety disorder within the past year, and that figure doesn’t include post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which may affect as many as half of people with a substance use disorder.
Anxiety disorders, as a group, are the most common mental illnesses in the US. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 30% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
However, nearly everyone experiences anxiety to some degree, and in many situations, it would be unusual if you didn’t feel anxious. What’s more, it’s hard to compare your own experience to anyone else’s to know whether you experience an excessive amount of anxiety. How can you tell if your anxiety is really an anxiety disorder?
You Feel Anxious for No Apparent Reason
The first thing to remember about anxiety is that it plays an important role in our survival. That’s why there are far more people who experience too much anxiety than people who experience hardly any. Anxiety is meant to warn you of danger and spur you into taking action. However, if you have an anxiety disorder, your brain or other parts of your physiology might decide to become anxious for no apparent reason. One minute, you’re sitting at home, minding your own business, and the next minute you’re overcome by worry or fear. If you find you’re anxious for no apparent reason, there may be some system in your brain or body that’s not properly regulating your state of mind.
Your Anxiety Continues After the Stressor
Sometimes you may have a good reason for anxiety--perhaps you have a job interview or you just narrowly avoided getting hit by a car. In cases like those, it’s normal to respond with some level of anxiety. However, after the danger has passed, your brain should send the “all clear” signal so you can wind down. However, if you get stuck in a loop, you may keep thinking about the inciting incident and your anxiety will stay pretty high. You try to stop but you just keep thinking about it. If this happens frequently, you may have an anxiety disorder.
You Feel Anxiety Out of Proportion to the Situation
As noted, there are plenty of times when some amount of anxiety is appropriate, but you always seem to feel much more anxious than the situation warrants. For example, someone has a birthday at the office and you get together with your coworkers for cake only to feel intense social anxiety. They’re all people you know, having an informal gathering with no stakes--why are you nervous? Unfortunately, this kind of reaction is not that uncommon and the anxiety can persist even if you know, rationally, that it’s excessive.
You Experience Panic
While anxiety, in appropriate amounts in appropriate situations, has a useful purpose, panic is never useful. Panic is runaway anxiety that keeps you from doing anything or even thinking clearly. Symptoms of a panic attack include a sense of impending doom, pounding or rapid heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest or throat, shaking, dizziness, or feelings of unreality or depersonalization.
People having a panic attack often mistake it for a heart attack. Panic attacks often start with an inciting incident, something that might normally cause anxiety, but then it gets out of control. After you’ve had one panic attack, just fearing another panic attack can trigger a panic attack. If these symptoms are familiar, you may have a panic disorder.
You Feel Anxious Most of the Time
In addition to feeling anxious at inappropriate times, you may just have a low level of anxiety most of the time--when you get up in the morning, when you’re out with friends, when you lie down to sleep, and so on. Anxiety is just the background noise of your life. This may be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder. You may think of yourself as a worrier or your friends may say you worry too much. If you’re always fixated on possible problems, even if they are unlikely, it may indicate an anxiety disorder.
You Have Physical Symptoms
Anxiety isn’t just a state of mind; it affects your body too. When you anticipate a threat, your body undergoes many adaptations, including faster heart rate and breathing, withdrawing blood from the extremities, and ramping up your immune system to protect against possible injuries, stopping digestion and other processes unrelated to fight or flight, and others.
While these are sometimes helpful in the moment, they are meant to be very short-term. If you feel anxious all the time, you are more prone to physical symptoms such as digestive problems like nausea or diarrhea, headaches, muscle tension, and even long-term problems like obesity and heart disease. Digestive symptoms and headaches with no apparent medical cause are often a red flag for an anxiety disorder.
You Have Trouble Sleeping
Insomnia and disturbed sleep are among the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders. You lie down and all you can do is worry. Since your defenses are down while you’re asleep, worry can get a jump on you, even if it’s totally irrational. Therefore, you might find yourself waking up in the early hours of the morning unable to go back to sleep. This is also a common symptom of depression, which often overlaps with anxiety disorders.
You Avoid Certain Situations
Finally, avoidance is a common symptom of an anxiety disorder. In a sense, it’s one of the defining symptoms, since it’s a practical way that anxiety limits your life. Maybe you avoid social situations or things you have a specific phobia of or things that remind you of a trauma. Unfortunately, avoidant behavior tends to grow and it can end up being fairly debilitating, whether it causes you to avoid social interactions, high-stakes situations, or even leaving the house.
Anxiety disorders are too often dismissed as not “real” mental health issues--just a case of being too tightly wound or overly nervous. However, anxiety disorders can seriously affect your life, limiting your scope, and even driving substance use.
At The Foundry, we know that mental health is one of the keys to a strong recovery, which is why we emphasize the diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring mental health issues as part of our holistic treatment program. We know that trauma is especially common and we use a variety of trauma-focused therapies to help our clients heal. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.
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