Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in total. The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable; the bad news is that few people (less than 40%) actually get help for it - according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Because life involves so many conflicting demands - including school, work, and family, some level of anxiety is indeed normal. If you’ve felt your heart racing before an exam, or you feel a little flustered before speaking in public, or you find yourself breathing more rapidly right before a crucial meeting at work, it is to be expected.
There is a point, however, in which anxiety needs to be diagnosed and treated. How can you tell if this is the case for you?
If you find you are missing one too many meetings because you have a panic attack, you are afraid of passing out, or you fear that something will go wrong when you are on public transport, anxiety may be getting the better of you.
Although in severe cases of anxiety and depression, medication is sometimes prescribed, many people find that cognitive-behavioral therapy, combined with natural approaches, are sufficient. Knowing when anxiety is personally debilitating is as instinctive as it is evident to others. That is, in addition to feeling the fear and discomfort associated with the condition, you may also find that you are skipping work or school, or finding ways to avoid social occasions.
Panic attacks are one of the most debilitating circumstances for people with anxiety. When you are in the throes of hyperventilation, it can feel like you are about to have a heart attack, or that something is wrong with your lungs - since you may find it difficult to breathe. Understanding exactly what sets this process can itself be a big help in helping you overcome anxiety.
Essentially, you hyperventilate because your body enters into "fight or flight" mode. Your mind perceives that you are under imminent, grave danger (even though you are not). You begin to breathe in more oxygen (which causes an oxygen overload and ensuing dizziness), and blood rushes to the muscle groups needed for you to make a quick escape (such as the major leg muscles). Having frequent panic attacks is a sign that your anxiety levels are escalating. When they occur, it means that stress hormone (cortisol) levels are inordinately high. Being in a "fight or flight" state for too long can harm your heart health, and contribute to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
If you have lost or gained a lot of weight, it could be that anxiety is affecting your eating patterns. Other signs include feeling sleepy or tired during the day (since anxiety can keep you awake at night and significantly affect your sleep quality).
Finally, when you are under great stress, your heart rate variability (HRV) is affected. You can use an app like Welltory or Apple Health to measure your HRV. If you have a low HRV, it might indicate that your heart is being over-stressed and that professional help is required to get you back on track.
If you are in mental anguish or your sleep is affected, see a professional, who will be able to diagnose you and recommend treatment.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) highlights the important link between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, putting you back in control. By changing specific behaviors, the anxiety you feel in certain situations can be reduced. Also helpful is time spent in nature, mindfulness pursuits, and creating a sound sleep strategy.
Don’t be shy to share your problems with someone who can help you get back on the road to a healthier, happier life.