It seems everyone is talking about anxiety these days, and that's not a bad thing. Shining a light on mental health helps reduce the stigma that keeps many people from seeking support.
At the same time, it can be hard to know if the worries and racing heart you experience at the thought of, say, meeting new people, is run-of-the-mill stress, or if you’re actually experiencing some level of anxiety and could benefit from seeing a professional.
“I can't tell you how many people I see who say, 'I don't know if I should be coming in here,’” clinical psychologist Robert Duff, Ph.D., author of Hardcore Self Help: F**k Anxiety., tells SELF. “On a broad scale, [talking about anxiety] is positive, but I don't blame anyone for the confusion.”
Figuring out how serious your anxiety is can be tough because anxiety is a normal and essential part of being a human.
“Anxiety is a reaction to a situation we perceive as stressful or dangerous,” Monique Reynolds, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, Maryland, tells SELF. This produces a stress response in your body—specifically, your brain’s hypothalamus triggers your sympathetic nervous system to release norepinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol (a stress hormone) to get you out of harm’s way.
This is actually a good thing when there is a real threat of danger present. “A major part of our brain's job is to keep us alive, and fear and anxiety are a big part of that,” Reynolds says. For example, the anxiety you would feel at seeing a truck hurtling towards you would make you move from its way more quickly.
But if you have anxiety, that stress response can kick in when it shouldn't. “You feel very much the way you do when in a dangerous situation…[but] there’s no real danger there,” Duff says. Instead of being helpful, this misfiring of your fight or flight reaction can hinder you.
While a little anxiety can also help you to perform at an optimal level under stress, giving you a burst of adrenaline and hyper-focus to finish a business proposal before deadline or nail that dance number at a performance, living in a constant heightened state of anxiety can be distracting at best and debilitating at worst. When anxious thoughts are interfering with your life and causing you significant distress, that isn’t something you should just chalk up to nerves and push through. That’s something you can get help with.