Anxiety, whether clinically diagnosable or not, can be absolutely debilitating, especially if left untreated. Take it from me: I had a panic attack on my own wedding day (not recommended), and now, as a psychotherapist, I help counsel people through anxiety every day.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or about 18 percent of the population. Even more astounding, though, is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 37 percent of those suffering get the treatment they need. Part of the problem: People often don’t know that what they’re dealing with is actually anxiety, or even if they do have an inkling, they might feel shame about asking for help and try to “power through it” on their own. But I’m here to tell you, ignoring your anxiety never works.
In my experience, I’ve learned that anxiety can actually be a gift, alerting you that something is out of balance in your life and giving you the nudge you need to pause and find that balance again. Sometimes this can be achieved through simple at-home practices, and other times enlisting the help of a therapist is key in managing anxiety.
So, how do you know when it’s time to see a therapist for your anxiety? First, it’s important to know if what you’re dealing with is actually anxiety or something else; then you need to assess the extent to which anxiety is currently affecting your life.
The difference between fear, stress, and anxiety.
Like so many words, “anxiety” gets misused all the time. I will often have clients tell me, “I’m so anxious about [insert situation here],” when what they really mean is that they’re stressed or scared. To help you pinpoint exactly what you’re dealing with, let’s define and differentiate these similar yet powerfully different words.
Fear: Fear is a basic emotional response to a known threat. It’s a present-oriented emotion (meaning, you’re afraid of something that’s happening right now) caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous. The fear response is hard-wired into our brains to help us survive, and it typically causes us to fight, flee, or freeze in response. A great example of fear is walking down a trail and seeing a bear in front of you. You’re either going to fight the bear, run away from the bear, or freeze and not be able to move. Fear differs from anxiety in that it relates to a real and in-the-moment (as opposed to an imagined) danger.
Stress: Stress is a psychological perception of pressure that typically feels too big to cope with in a healthy way. Psychological stress usually comes from things that happen externally like marital or relationship problems, the death of a loved one, abuse, health problems, or financial struggles. While “acute stress” has an ending, “chronic stress” could continue on and on and on. Left unchecked, chronic stress can lead to a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, including anxiety.
Anxiety: Unlike fear, anxiety is a future-oriented emotion, meaning, rather than being focused on something scary in the moment, it’s apprehension about something in the future—an unknown. Anxietycan be accompanied by intrusive thoughts that run through your mind at a rapid pace, creating feelings of tension, a racing heart, sweating, shaking, and dizziness.
Healthy vs. unhealthy anxiety: When is it time to see a therapist?
If you’re still reading, chances are you’re dealing with some level of anxiety. But rest assured, not all anxiety is unhealthy. To paraphrase renowned psychologist Albert Ellis: Anxiety is basically a set of uncomfortable feelings and action tendencies that make you aware that unpleasant things are happening, or are likely to happen, and warn you that you better do something about them. All of which is to say, healthy anxiety can put you in control of your own feelings, help you deal with potentially dangerous situations effectively, and act as a “check engine” light for your entire being.
But unhealthy anxiety is much different and makes it almost impossible to actually cope with dangerous or unpleasant situations. In the broadest sense: Whenever anxiety starts to interfere with your daily life, that means it’s probably time for some help. To help illustrate what that means, here are five signs your anxiety is doing more harm than good and that it’s time to seek out the help of a therapist:
1. You feel like you’re not in control of your thoughts.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: When your boss calls an unexpected meeting, you immediately think you’re getting fired and spend the next hour mentally freaking out and playing through every possible negative scenario, or at night, you can’t sleep because nonstop thoughts are racing through your head (How will I finish tomorrow’s impossible to-do list, and what will people think of me if I don’t? My boss didn’t sign off on that super-important project; what now? Crap, I haven’t made a doctor’s appointment in two years; what if I have cancer?). It’s miserable—and no, life doesn’t have to be this way.
2. You sometimes lose control of your physical body and behavior.
Shaking, tapping, losing feeling in your extremities, feeling paralyzed, or even sending 10 texts in a row instead of one or calling someone incessantly until they pick up the phone—when anxiety gets bad, we often start doing things that would have once been considered totally out of character.
3. You aren’t doing the things you want to do.
Have you ever decided to stay home and not go to that happy hourwith co-workers or concert because of some irrational worry that you were only invited out of pity or that someone will think you’re weird? Or maybe you really wanted to go to your friend’s wedding, but it would have required you to get on an airplane, and the thought of that brought up a slew of what-ifs that stopped you from going. Your anxiety should never hold you back from doing the things you want—and if it does, it’s time to get support.
4. You’re having regular panic attacks.
Panic attacks are an intense physical manifestation of your anxiety during which your sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and triggers a huge release of adrenaline. If you’re unaware of what’s happening, it can feel like you’re having a heart attack or even dying, and symptoms often include a feeling or terror, trembling, a choking sensation, difficulty catching your breath, numbness and tingling, sweating, and sometimes even vomiting. As if that weren’t enough, if you’re experiencing panic attacks, the mere thought of having another panic attack can be enough to bring on more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle that often requires a mental health professional to help you break.
5. You can’t go to work, take care of your kids, or complete other basic tasks.
When you can’t do the things that you need to do to function as a human being in today’s world, there’s a problem. This isn’t to say you can’t have bad days or take a mental health day now and then to hit the reset button, but when you frequently can’t complete basic daily tasks that are essential to your well-being or the well-being of your family, it’s time to get support.
How to find a therapist and alleviate your anxiety.
If you’re dealing with unhealthy anxiety, your first step should be finding a therapist so you can get their professional opinion and possibly an official diagnosis. Ultimately, there are two big reasons to get a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder. First, it can help define the method of treatment; second, a diagnosis is needed for insurance to approve any sessions with any therapist. To find a therapist in your area, GoodTherapy is a great resource that allows you to filter by ZIP code, specialties, type of insurance accepted, and whether or not the therapist accepts sliding-scale payments.
If you’re dealing with stress or lower levels of anxiety, you should still take steps to alleviate it—but you may be able to get it under control with simple coping strategies and natural remedies. Here are a few suggestions that I’ve found to be helpful:
- Call someone you trust: Your friends and family love you and want to be there for you if they can be. The key is to call someone who can hold space for you and who isn’t going to try to problem-solve—unless you’re looking for that. Be upfront about what you need so they can give it to you.
- Try aromatherapy: When it comes to coping with stress or low levels of anxiety, diffusing some high-quality essential oils can be super-helpful. Research suggests that some of the best essential oils for stress and anxiety are lavender, rose, vetiver, ylang-ylang, bergamot, chamomile, and frankincense.
- Take a few minutes to just breathe: While it’s so easy to write off meditation as something we “don’t have time for,” all you really need is two minutes to make a difference. Check out apps like Insight Timer, which allows you to search for a meditation based on how much time you have, or simply set a timer on your phone for a few minutes and take some deep breaths.
- Consider a few supplements: While you should always check with your doctor before taking a new supplement, I’ve found some to be pretty fabulous for helping manage stress and low levels of anxiety, including ashwagandha, 5-HTP, GABA, magnesium, and vitamin B complex.
Above all, I want you to know that anxiety does not have to rule your life. If your anxiety is stopping you from living the life you want to live (which is known as “impairment” in therapist-speak), it’s time to get support. Instead of fighting with your anxiety, accept it and use the tools you have at your fingertips. Soon enough, you’ll feel comfortable in your body and mind again.