On Your Mind: Do I have an anxiety disorder?

on your mindI’ve noticed at work a few times that I start to feel really anxious and need to go into the bathroom to settle down. I’m having a few problems with my boss and I wonder if it’s related to stress or if it could be a different health issue. How can I tell if this is just “normal” stress or possibly an anxiety disorder?

Dear Mom,

Some anxiety can be a part of normal life and usually isn’t a problem. So how do we know when it’s excessive or whether to ask for help?

As part of normal life or just our shared experience as humans, anxiety serves a purpose. It can help us prepare for or avoid difficulties in the future. Generally speaking, anxiety is what we experience when we’re thinking about something that may happen in the future that may be negative. Anxiety is on a continuum, with fear and panic being responses to something more immediate, either real or imagined. Fear, like anxiety has served a purpose as it has helped us have the physical activation for “fight or flight” and to ultimately survive danger.

So, clearly anxiety serves an adaptive purpose, and to that end there is a very physical component to the emotion. The muscle tension, restlessness, and increased heartbeat are usually early indicators. In children that can manifest as crying, clinging, or failing to speak. If this progresses to panic, these symptoms become amplified, and sweating, trembling, and even shortness of breath can occur.

Along with the physical symptoms, there are changes in thinking. With anxiety comes worry. In panic you can have thoughts that you are losing control or are going to die. And…you can have all of that without having a mental illness.

Anxiety and panic become a problem that may need treatment if these symptoms are excessive, don’t go away, and cause you to make changes in your life that may not be in your best interest. For many people who have a significant problem with anxiety, it can cause them to avoid their friends and make it very difficult to form new relationships. Often people miss social or work opportunities. It can make simple things like going to work, or class, or shopping a huge undertaking or seemingly impossible.

There are a variety of disorders that have anxiety as a component: Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and PTSD being a few. There are also specific anxiety disorders such as Separation Anxiety (both children and adults), Selective Mutism, Social Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, and Panic Disorder.

The good news is that there are very successful treatments for anxiety. The front line of these treatments is really to learn to recognize the physical symptoms and use simple interventions to slow the physical response and prevent progression to panic. This can be as easy as learning techniques to control your breathing. Learning to identify and examine your thinking is also key. It’s not uncommon for someone with anxiety to have really negative self-talk that goes something like this: “I have a toothache. What if it’s a brain tumor? or “If I go to this party I’ll probably lose it, and it will be an epic fail,” or for children  “What if my mom dies while I’m at school?”

Those thoughts can be devastating and if not challenged create excessive worry, anxiety, and panic. The good news is that talk therapy can be very effective at slowing or stopping the physical response to anxiety and also effective at changing the negative thinking patterns that create the anxiety.

In some cases it may be necessary to consult a physician to determine whether medications may be indicated, especially if there is another disorder, such as Biploar that is contributing to anxiety. Whatever the situation, and whether it is you or a friend or loved one who may be struggling with this issue, relief from the pain and isolation caused by anxiety is absolutely within reach.

I wish you the very best as you work through this problem, and please know that we’re here to help if you need us.

Jared's Pic for MHCAJared Sparks, LCSW, PhD is the Clinical Director of Ozark Guidance. He completed his PhD in Social Work from Tulane University and has a MSW and BA in Psychology from the University of Alabama. Jared is active in the local mental health community and serves on the NW Arkansas Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Therapists at Ozark Guidance would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback.

Disclaimer: This RESPONSE does not provide medical advice It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on nwaMotherlode or Ozark Guidance websites.

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