Is Anxiety a Mental Illness?

sad and anxious woman sitting at the end of her bed

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Anxiety is something that everyone experiences from time to time. You feel nervous, get butterflies in your stomach, or find it hard to stop thinking about something that’s stressing you out. If you are someone who experiences anxiety, you may be asking yourself if anxiety is a mental illness.

Anxiety On It's Own Is Not a Mental Illness

While most people experience anxiety symptoms sometimes, anxiety itself is not a mental illness. However, if your anxiety is significant, you may have an anxiety disorder, which is a type of mental illness.

Let’s take a look at what makes something a mental illness, in what instances anxiety is a symptom of a mental illness, and how to get diagnosed and treated for an anxiety disorder.

What Is a Mental Illness?

Mental illnesses are psychiatric conditions that impact a person’s moods, behaviors, and thoughts. They are common: about 1 in 5 people experience mental illnesses, and up to 4% of people experience a severe form of mental illness.

What the Term 'Mental Illness' Means

Mental illness is defined as a condition that affects your emotions, relationships, behavior, and state of mind. For something to be considered a mental illness, it has to have a significant impact on your day-to-day functioning.

There are some people who experience mental illness on a short-term basis, but for many people, mental illness is a lifetime condition that needs careful attention and effective treatment. If untreated, many mental illnesses make it difficult to be a fully functional person, and can affect jobs, relationships, and family dynamics. Thankfully, mental illnesses are treatable, and people with mental illnesses can live full lives.

There are many types of mental illnesses out there. Some of the most common mental illnesses include:

  • Depression, including unipolar depression and bipolar depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance abuse disorder
  • Eating disorders

Is Anxiety a Mental Illness?

The emotion of anxiety itself is not a mental illness. Most people experience anxiety at different times in their lives. You may experience anxiety before making a presentation at work or school. You may experience it before meeting someone new or starting a new job. You may experience it if you are in danger in some way, or if your loved one is.

Anxiety can be a helpful emotion at times because it can tell us that we need to exercise caution or leave a threatening situation.

At times, though, anxiety can be a sign of a mental illness. There are several different types of anxiety disorders, but all have a few traits in common:

  • Anxiety disorders can disrupt your life and make it difficult for you to function
  • The fear and anxiousness you experience can be intense, and overwhelming, and it can be difficult to make the feelings go away
  • With an anxiety disorder—as opposed to simply experiencing anxiety in life—you often perceive threats that don’t exist, or experience an exaggerated reaction to a threat

Anxiety disorders are quite prevalent. It’s estimated that about 30% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Studies have found that certain populations are more susceptible to anxiety disorders than others. For example, women, people with chronic conditions, and younger people may be more likely to experience an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders can take many forms. Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

How Is Anxiety Diagnosed?

If you are unsure if you are experiencing simple anxiety or an anxiety disorder, it’s important that you receive a proper diagnosis. Your first stop should be your general doctor. Since anxiety sometimes shares symptoms with health conditions, including thyroid disorder and heart conditions, it’s important to rule these out.

If your doctor believes that you are experiencing an anxiety disorder, they will likely refer you to a licensed therapist or psychiatrist for a diagnosis.

Diagnoses of mental health disorders are made after you meet with a therapist to discuss symptoms and experiences. Therapists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose specific anxiety disorders, based on information they gather from you.

Anxiety Treatment

Treatment for anxiety disorders usually involves a multifactorial approach: a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.

Therapy

Engaging in talk therapy with a credentialed counselor or therapist is a wonderful way to manage your anxiety. Your therapist can help you identify situations that trigger your anxiety, and help you come up with techniques to help you work through these feelings.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on being more self-aware of the thoughts that contribute to anxiety, is one of the most effective therapies for anxiety.

Medication

Many people find that medication can help reduce anxiety symptoms. Often, people with anxiety are prescribed antidepressants (SSRIs) for overall symptom management. Anti-anxiety medication (usually benzodiazepines), which can help with specific instances of anxiety (such as panic attacks) is often also used. You should speak to your doctor or psychiatrist for the best medication for you.

Lifestyle Changes

People with anxiety benefit from changes to their lifestyle. For example, studies have shown getting enough sleep can mitigate anxiety symptoms. Researchers have also found that practicing relaxation techniques and engaging in regular meditation can help.

Reducing stress, exercising, and reducing caffeine can also lessen symptoms of anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

If anxiety is something you are dealing with for the first time, or something you experience on a regular basis, you may be wondering if you have a mental illness. If your anxiety is manageable, isn’t disrupting your life, and is experienced in relation to a specific stressful situation, you may be experiencing anxiety as a normal, human emotion. However, if the anxiety is intense, making it difficult for you to function, and isn’t something you can control, you might be experiencing an anxiety disorder.

Whatever you are experiencing, your feelings matter, and there is no shame in experiencing anxiety or having an anxiety disorder. Importantly, help is out there. Both anxiety and anxiety disorders can be managed and treated. Please reach out to your doctor or a mental health counselor for support.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.