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 June 10, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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 disorder.

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 anxiety.

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 light-headed.

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 widespread.

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 altogether.

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 pressure.

  • 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 built.

  • Medication

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