Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, and it plays an important role in keeping us healthy and safe. Like most emotions, however, anxiety can grow to the point that it does more harm than good, and this is the point at which it becomes a disorder.
As modern humans, many of the challenges we face are the same as those faced at the dawn of our species 200,000 years ago. Each of us must still secure food, clothing, shelter, companionship and assure our physical safety. However, there are new challenges unique to modern life for which our drives and emotions may not be optimally calibrated.
The anonymity of life in modern cities, the financial uncertainty most of us face, the lack of a common code of ethics, the availability of drugs and alcohol and even commuting in traffic can all engage our thoughts and emotions in a way that may cause a type of chronic, baseline anxiety that wasn't present for our ancestors.
What is often surprising to people is that we are essentially the same animals we were 200,000 years ago, with the same bodies, brains, drives and intelligence that evolution crafted for survival on the plains of Africa. As humans now living in the modern world, we are like cars that were built and tuned for off-road use that are now driving on a congested, urban highway.
If we understand an anxiety disorder to be a condition in which anxiety has become so excessive that it leads to distress or dysfunction, then it is very likely that there has always been a certain percentage of the population suffering from these conditions, even hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African plains. We all have a genetically predetermined degree of vulnerability to anxiety, and depending upon the amount of adversity or trauma we experience in our lives, we probably all have the ability to develop an anxiety disorder. Nonetheless, with brains that evolution crafted to function in an environment strikingly different from the one in which we now live, it may be that a greater percentage of us are experiencing higher levels of anxiety than ever before.
So how does one know if anxiety has become a disorder? Only a trained mental health care provider can diagnose an anxiety disorder, and there are several different anxiety disorders, each with their own characteristics, but below are five signs to look for.
Identifying an anxiety disorder as such is important because it is likely to get better with treatment and may not get better without it. An insidious characteristic of anxiety disorders is that they often lead the affected individual to avoid doing things that trigger their anxiety -- including seeking help.
Like the child who is so afraid there is a monster in his closet that he never opens the door, adults with anxiety disorders may suffer needlessly for years because they avoid feared activities and places, thus depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn they are actually safe.
If you think you or a loved one may have an anxiety disorder, it is important to speak to your doctor about it or to schedule an appointment with a licensed mental health care provider. You can also visit www.anxiety.org or www.adaa.org for more information on anxiety disorders and treatment options.
You are experiencing some degree of fear or anxiety frequently or constantly. Occasional anxiety is both normal and healthy, but frequent or constant anxiety is not. For example, you worry so much that you can't get through the day, or you get stuck wondering whether you've done things well enough.
When you do experience fear or anxiety, it is often intense or overwhelming. Life threatening or traumatic experiences appropriately generate feelings of intense anxiety -- it is our body's signal to make getting out of the situation our highest priority. Experiencing severe or overwhelming anxiety in non-dangerous situations, however, may be part of an anxiety disorder. For example, you need to make an overnight business trip but are so anxious about leaving your family that you can't focus on your work while you're there.
You are avoiding situations, places, objects or activities, because of anxiety or fear. Avoidance is a natural response to anxiety and is beneficial when there is actual danger. In anxiety disorders, however, avoidance very often becomes part of the problem and causes one's life to become smaller and smaller as more and more things are avoided. For example, you live in Manhattan and are unable to travel far beyond your home area because you are afraid of bridges and crossing waterways.
Anxiety or fear is interfering with your ability to do the things you need to do at work, school or home. When anxiety becomes so frequent or severe that it hurts rather than helps our performance, it changes from a normal, healthy emotion into a disorder. For example, you are so worried about your children that you over-parent and neglect other homemaking responsibilities.
Anxiety or fear often interferes with your social life and relationships. Human beings are social animals and require the friendship, love and support of other people to be happy and healthy. Some amount of anxiety when meeting new people or speaking in front of a large group is an almost universal experience. However, when anxiety has grown to the point that it adversely impacts relationships or leads to isolation, it may be part of an anxiety disorder. For example, you are so fearful of what people will think of you, that you can't attend professional conferences or cocktail parties.
Follow Jason Eric Schiffman, M.D., M.A., M.B.A. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/anxietyorg