When Worry Takes Over

How do you know if you're too anxious? For millions of people, worry disrupts everyday life.

By PT Staff, published on June 10, 2003 - last reviewed on June 11, 2008

Anxiety is part of life. It's a natural byproduct of
having a brain that is capable of such high-wire acts as considering the
future. A little anxiety is good, even necessary, and a great motivator
to get us to plan well and perform.

Yet too much anxiety can be disabling. For millions of people,
worry disrupts everyday life, restricting it or even
overshadowing it entirely. An estimated 15 percent of Americans suffer
from one anxiety disorder or another. These include generalized
anxiety, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder or flat-out
panic attacks. As a group, anxiety disorders constitute the most common

How do you know whether you are worrying too much? When anxiety
moves beyond an occasional wave of apprehension to become a constant and
dominating force in your life, you need to take steps to curb

Sometimes anxiety explodes in a panic attack, marked by a general
feeling of terror. A person engulfed in a panic attack usually
experiences a racing or pounding heart, sometimes even pain or heaviness
in the chest. Breathing becomes difficult. The body trembles and hands
turn clammy. The person may notice tingling in their hands and feet,
sometimes in their arms and legs. They may start to feel

Victims feel out of control. Many feel like they are
going crazy. Panic attacks are so frightening that sufferers wonder
whether they will survive the episode.

At least 5 percent of American adults experience panic attacks.
Often, the attacks come out of the blue, for no apparent reason. Or they
can come on when a person is coping with extreme stress. Either way, panic
attacks can last for several minutes.

Other forms of anxiety are less dramatic but more

For some, other people are the cause of anxiety. Social anxiety
creates the feeling that you are being watched and
judged by others, even if rationally you know that this is not the case.
In its milder forms, social anxiety can create extreme self-consciousness
in the presence of others; but in its severe form it can be
debilitating, leading sufferers to avoid social situations

Another common form of worry is generalized anxiety disorder.
Sufferers are filled with questions—negative ones—and dwell on
endless "what if's." They feel trapped in cycles of
anxiety and worry.

General anxiety doesn't typically lead to panic attacks, but it can
still be incapacitating. The endless worry saps energy, destroys interest
in life and prompts frequent mood swings.

It's possible that some people are born with a temperament that
inclines them to anxiety. Regardless of how anxiety develops, it's
possible to control it.

Even though you have tried relaxation or stress management, anxiety is interfering with your work or personal life. At this point you
should get a consultation from a health professional.

Treatment is tailored to the specific concerns that preoccupy each
person. Nevertheless, there are some treatment techniques that are widely
applied. Persons who are expert at treating anxiety often use a
combination of approaches:

  • Cognitive Therapy

    Focuses on creating an
    understanding of the thought patterns that bring on worry. It helps
    anxiety sufferers separate unrealistic from realistic thoughts.

  • Behavior Therapy

    Focuses on taming anxiety through
    control of specific ways the body overreacts to worry. One common
    approach is to teach controlled breathing and the relaxing of muscles
    that constrict with worry. Both techniques lower heart rate and blood

  • Relaxation Training

    Through a mixture of cognitive
    and behavior techniques, helps avert high anxiety. One approach is to
    think of a relaxing scene when anxiety levels start to rise.

  • Desensitization

    Those who suffer phobias and
    obsessive-compulsive disorder are gradually and safely exposed to
    whatever is the source of their anxiety, until, over time, tolerance is

  • Medication

    Antidepressant and antianxiety
    medications are most effective in combination with psychotherapy.