Anxiety, or hand-wrenching, tummy-turning worry, is a natural reaction to some of life's most challenging situations.
A little bit of anxiety can be good. It helps motivate you to meet a deadline, pass a test, or deliver a well-crafted presentation at work. It also keeps you from walking head-on into danger. As part of the fight-or-flight response, anxiety causes your heart rate to increase and your muscles to tense should you need to act.
At its extreme, however, worry runs amok. Once it begins to interfere with everyday life, worry is considered an anxiety disorder. About 40 million Americans experience these disorders, which include panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety disorders require medical attention and sometimes medication.
Millions of people fall somewhere in between these two extremes, however. They worry too much but don't have an actual disorder. Chronic worriers are able to function from day to day, but the anxiety eats away at their emotional and physical health. Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., calls this "persistent toxic worry."
"We virtually train ourselves to worry, which only reinforces the habit," Dr. Hallowell says. "Worriers often feel vulnerable if they're not worrying."
Worriers have good reason to stop. Excessive worry, or anxiety, is associated with increased risk for depression, heart disease, and other medical conditions.
Here are some tips for getting a handle on excessive worry.
The line between normal worrying and an anxiety disorder can be hard to discern. "If your life is restricted by anxiety, get medical attention," advises Bernard Vittone, M.D. Also see a doctor if you:
• Experience more than one panic attack a month or fear having a second attack
• Are nervous or anxious most of the time, particularly if your worry is attached to situations that would not make other people anxious
• Frequently experience insomnia, shakiness, poor concentration, tight muscles, or heart palpitations
• Feel nervous in or avoid facing particular situations, such as crossing bridges or tunnels
• Take refuge from fear or worry by using drugs, including alcohol, or overeating
• Can't stop obsessing or ruminating about the past
• Are in an emotional crisis, and the support of caring friends, family, or clergy doesn't seem to help
• Fear you might harm yourself or others
Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., is a psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Massachusetts. He is the author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition and Connect: 12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul.
Bernard Vittone, M.D., is a psychiatrist and founder of the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety, and Depression in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Weil, M.D., is a clinical professor of medicine and director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is the author of several books, including 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, Natural Health, Natural Medicine and Healthy Aging.