We all get stressed out at times, whether it’s due to work, relationships, money or just day-to-day problems. But how much is too much? When is your level of anxiety an unhealthy one?
We’re digging deeper into what it means to be more than just a little stressed out and sharing some expert insight into how to tell if your anxiety is more than just an annoyance.
We asked Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, Psy.D., at Morningside Recovery Center, for her insight into anxiety and how much is too much.
Anxiety and you
Waterman tells us that worries about finances, relationships and job stress are some of the most common she hears about on a regular basis. So how much is too much? She shares five signs your anxiety is getting to be too much.
- Frequent or persistent worrying thoughts that make it difficult to focus on daily tasks or responsibilities.
- Feeling tense, keyed up, or on edge for most of the day.
- Difficulty sleeping due to excessive worry.
- Irritability, low tolerance for frustration and/or angry outbursts.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) distress, headaches or migraines, heart palpitations, high blood pressure and shallow, quick breathing.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is completely normal and something most people will feel at various points in their lives. Waterman explains that it can actually be very helpful in motivating people to solve problems and better their lives, because, let’s face it, who actually wants to feel anxious? However, when anxiety becomes excessive, it can result in problems functioning on a daily basis. “Anxiety is the result of negative interpretations or judgments about current or future life events. People with excessive anxiety tend to engage in catastrophic thinking,” explains Waterman. This refers to thoughts such as “Things will never work out for me” or “I will get fired and lose my house.” She also notes that people suffering from anxiety will often overgeneralize negative experiences. For example, “Everyone will laugh at me if I speak up in the meeting” or “Nobody every stands up for me and I’m left to fend for myself.”
This type of fear-based thinking triggers our sympathetic nervous system, or the fight-or-flight response, says Waterman. This is because when the situation is interpreted as a threat, the body prepares itself for survival — even if there is no “real” threat or the threat is all in your head. “Chronic anxiety results in frequent triggering of the sympathetic nervous system, which leads to a cascade of neurotransmitters being released in the brain; subsequently, a flood of hormones enters the bloodstream and affects the organs needed to prepare the body for fight or flight,” she explains.
The negative effects of too much anxiety
While it is normal to have some anxiety, if you find yourself feeling anxious on a daily basis, you will likely end up with other issues, both physical and emotional. “Chronically high anxiety leads to various mental health and physical health problems,” affirms Waterman. These include GI issues, tension headaches and migraines, muscle aches, a suppressed immune system and an increased vulnerability to illness. Regular bouts of anxiety can also strengthen negative thought patterns, leading to more negative thinking and, in turn, more anxiety, and lead to low self-esteem and impair performance in social, academic and professional settings, she tells us.
How to stay calm and carry on
If you feel like your anxiety level is getting too high, there are a few things you can do to lower it and feel calmer in your day-to-day life. Waterman shares a few.
- Exercise regularly to relieve tension, release endorphins and maintain physical health.
- Practice mindful meditation daily.
- Challenge any irrational thoughts that are creating anxiety with evidence from reality.
- Give your irrational thoughts or judgments a more accurate and neutral or even positive spin.
- If you find yourself in a heightened anxiety state, practice belly breathing and fully focus on your breath until the physical sensations of anxiety decrease in your body.
- If possible, start working on the problem or task that is creating the anxiety. Break down the solution into small steps that can be worked on one at a time. This will increase the likelihood that you will follow through with the task or work on the problem.
- Ask others for help with a problem that’s causing your anxiety. Or ask them for feedback on your thoughts to help determine if they are rational or irrational.