Anxiety, like most things, is good for you in moderation. Anxiety is normal, healthy, and quite often, it's helpful.

But, in high doses, anxiety becomes problematic. It impairs your performance and makes it difficult to function.

Many people wonder, is my anxiety normal or do I have an anxiety disorder? Fortunately, there are some strategies that can help you determine whether your anxiety falls within the normal range.

The Purpose of Anxiety

Anxiety is meant to keep you safe. When your brain senses danger, it produces a physiological response within your body that will help you react appropriately.

If you came face to face with a hungry predator, sweaty palms, a rapid heart rate, and hypervigilance could help you prepare to fight (or run for your life). Your brain is essentially signaling to your body that you'd better take action if you want to survive.

In addition to initiating the fight or flight response when you're in a life or death situation, anxiety also helps you avoid danger. You most likely look both ways before you cross the road because your anxiety wants to keep you safe.

Small amounts of anxiety can even help you perform better. Studies show athletes perform at their peak when they're a bit anxious about how they're going to do. Having no anxiety at all could cause them to become too relaxed about their performance.

Similarly, a little bit of anxiety could fuel your performance in a class or in the office. You'll study harder when you're worried about your grade. And you'll be more attentive to your work when you're concerned about getting promoted.

The Reason Some People Have Too Much Anxiety

Anxiety disorders come in many forms. But in the simplest of terms, anxiety disorders result from a faulty alarm bell. The brain sends an alarm that puts the body into fight or flight mode even when there's no danger present.

A person with a panic disorder might have a panic attack while watching TV safely on their living room sofa. Someone with generalized anxiety disorder might feel as if they're in an elevated state of anxiety almost all of the time because their brain is signaling that danger is lurking close by.

In addition to the physiological component to anxiety--like the sweaty palms and elevated heart rate--there are also mental and emotional components to an anxiety disorder.

Someone with high anxiety is likely to experience feelings of dread or doom. They may begin thinking about worst case scenarios or imagining horrific outcomes. The thoughts, feelings, and physiological symptoms tend to reinforce one another, making anxiety a difficult cycle to break.

For many people battling anxiety, avoidance becomes the easiest way to cope. If public speaking causes their anxiety to skyrocket, it's tempting to avoid any type of public speaking. Or, if driving across bridges leads to increased anxiety, one solution is to avoid going over bridges at all costs.

Going to great lengths to avoid the discomfort of anxiety has consequences, however. It can prevent someone from reaching their greatest potential and it can stand in the way of doing the things someone really wants to do.

Some people aren't able to avoid things that make them anxious--they might even feel anxious all the time and not even know why. High levels of chronic anxiety are also likely to take a toll on someone's physical and psychological well-being.

How to Know When to Get Help

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition. The Anxiety and Depression Association estimates that more than 18% of the population has an anxiety disorder. Yet, only 36% of those with the disorder get help. 

While the stigma associated with mental health issues is certainly part of the reason many people don't seek treatment, the other major reason is that people don't recognize when their anxiety has become a problem. 

The difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder involves the impairment an individual experiences. If anxiety interferes with your social, occupational or educational functioning, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Here are some examples of impairments:

  • You call in sick because you to feel anxious to go to work.
  • Your anxiety makes it impossible to concentrate.
  • Your anxiety prevents you from attending social functions.
  • You have trouble maintaining a healthy relationship because of your anxiety.
  • Your worrying makes it hard to find joy in everyday activities.
  • You struggle to sleep at night because you're worrying and it feels like your brain can't shut off.

It's easy to grow so accustomed to your anxiety that it's hard to notice how big of a role it plays in your life. Sometimes, it's important to step back and examine what type of accommodations you make to avoid anxiety or to consider how anxiety interferes with your everyday life.

If you suspect that you may have an anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor. Discuss the symptoms you're seeing or the impairments it has on your life.

Anxiety is very treatable--usually with talk therapy. Unfortunately, however, many people wait years before addressing the issue. The sooner you talk to someone, the sooner you can begin to experience relief.

Published on: Sep 17, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.