Believe it or not, we need anxiety. The right amount helps us avoid dangerous situations and pushes us toward our goals. But too much anxiety leaves us feeling edgy, tense and miserable.
“The problem is that some people get unduly anxious in situations that aren’t really threatening. They overestimate the risk,” says Joyce Davidson
, MD, a psychiatrist with Menninger's Compass Program for Young Adults
, adding that anxiety evolved in early humans to us escape from real threats like hungry predators or warring tribes.
Modern Americans are generally safer than our primitive ancestors, but our anxiety remains – an estimated 18 percent
of adults have anxiety disorders. So how much anxiety is too much? Dr. Davidson says the following behaviors are signs anxiety is becoming a problem.
Avoiding situations that cause anxiety
“What most people do in the face of anxiety is avoid the situation that is causing them anxiety, especially social situations,” she says. “But that causes its own problems. If you are avoiding social situations
, you are avoiding job interviews and aren’t able to develop friends and a support system.”
Other anxiety-provoking situations people avoid include flying in airplanes, public speaking and heights. Avoidance often only heightens the anxiety and limits what a person can do. Dr. Davidson says exposure therapy – gradually exposing, or habituating, a person to what makes them anxious – helps people get used to their fear.
“The brain habituates to anxiety, because it is not wired to stay anxious. Eventually the anxiety will go away,” Dr. Davidson says.
A drink or two can help take the edge off of the nervousness and fear common with social anxiety, but can be a dangerous crutch. Turning to alcohol or drugs to handle anxiety is a “safety behavior” and is a sign you may have difficulty handling anxiety, she says. “When you drink to allay your fears, it only makes the situation worse.”
While alcohol and drugs can temporarily numb anxiety, prescription medications
, including anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, are a better long-term solution and give many patients with anxiety disorders relief from their symptoms.
Feeling tense, irritable and overwhelmed? Constantly feeling anxious about everything, a condition called generalized anxiety disorder, or suffering from intense anxiety or phobias makes you feel miserable, and often depressed. If you are feeling that way, don’t hesitate to seek treatment from a mental health professional, Dr. Davidson says. Treatment with medications, therapy or a combination of both helps improve the debilitating symptoms of anxiety.
“If you are finding that you are not able to do things you want to do because of your anxiety, and if you are feeling a significant level of distress or disability, then you should do something about it,” she says.