Anxiety: How Much Is Too Much?

Differentiating Between Normal and Excessive Anxiety

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Anxiety is a physical and mental state that's totally natural for everyone to experience at different points in time. After all, it's a state with an adaptive and protective purpose. Sometimes, however, worry can take on a life of its own. If anxiety is starting to hurt you rather than help you, if it’s difficult to control or making it nearly impossible to cope, it’s time to step back and evaluate the extent of the problem.

Symptoms That Indicate Anxiety May Be a Problem

The point at which worry and anxiety become an issue is somewhat subjective, though there are several different markers of severity and intensity that you might use to evaluate how reasonable or unreasonable your level of anxiety is.

This might be hard to judge from inside the experience, but to start, trying stepping back and asking yourself questions such as:

  • Is my anxiety hurting my relationships?
  • Is it hurting my performance in school or at work?
  • Am I frequently distracted by thoughts of what will go wrong in certain situations?
  • Do I avoid activities that I might actually enjoy because of a looming feeling of dread?
  • Do I constantly feel ​on edge or amped up, even in the absence of a clear source of worry?
  • Am I frequently blowing things out of proportion, even though it doesn't feel like I am in the moment?

If the answers to any of these questions give you pause, or if you're finding them tough to answer, consider asking someone you trust about their perception of your anxiety and how it impacts your life.

What to Do When Anxiety Is a Problem

If you think your worry has gotten out of hand, an expert opinion can help to further clarify this. Meeting with a clinician—a counselor, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist—can help you to determine if your anxiety issue can be classified as a disorder, and which one.

Clinicians will use diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders to determine whether or not your anxiety is excessive. This typically involves an assessment of how persistent your anxiety is, what types of symptoms you experience, how long they last, and how intrusive they are on your ability to get through life on a day-to-day basis.

Diagnosing an Anxiety Disorder

Diagnosis of an anxiety disorder can be tricky. Many symptoms of various anxiety disorders overlap with one another, and it might take some time to tease out the primary problem. Also, some people struggle with more than one type of anxiety disorder. Others can exhibit a number of significant symptoms, but not quite enough symptoms to meet the strict criteria for a given diagnosis. If this happens, you might be told that you have a “sub-threshold” anxiety disorder.

Even if your anxiety is of the low-grade variety or doesn't meet the threshold for a firm diagnosis, that doesn't mean it’s not worth working on. In fact, from a practical perspective, it’s most important to pay attention to how anxiety interferes with your life, no matter how it manifests. A clinician can help you narrow down what’s wrong or identify helpful interventions, even if he or she is unable to determine a specific label for the problem.

Next Steps

Speaking with a physician or mental health provider who knows you is the best way to figure out your next step(s). Depending on the nature and extent of your anxiety, you may find one or a combination of a number of approaches useful.

Mild or intermittent anxiety may improve when you use strategies such as these:

For moderate to severe anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the psychotherapy of choice with an encouraging evidence base to support its use.

There are also ​medications that can help with persistent anxiety of any degree.

How to Find a Mental Health Provider

To find a qualified clinician, check out referral resources including Psychology Today, The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, or The Anxiety and Depression Association. Or, speak with your current physician about seeking a psychiatric evaluation with a recommended mental health provider. For additional resources on mental health, check out the American Psychiatric Association (APA) blog.