When Does Normal Anxiety Become a Mental Illness?

anxious man hand in head

Imagine a caveman returning from a hunt. He is dragging the heavy carcass of a wild boar behind him. As he nears the glowing cave where his brethren await him, he constantly peers around to ensure there are no more threats.

If something attacked him now, it would be difficult to defend. He hasn’t seen anything dangerous for an hour, yet his eyes continue to dart around. He checks his back every couple of seconds.

Then he hears a rustle in a bush next to him. He reflexively thrusts his spear toward the noise.

In its purest, primal state, anxiety is an emotion that keeps us alive and unharmed. Our ancestors needed it to avoid being eaten by wild animals. By worrying about threats ahead of time, they became prepared to fight or take flight when necessary. This helped them survive and eventually thrive.

We may not have these kinds of threats in our daily lives, but this same anxiety still has practical uses. Worrying a little bit about potential mistakes or negative outcomes helps us be responsible. For example, when people have mild anxiety about meeting a deadline, they gain some motivation that helps them finish their work ahead of time. Once the work is over, the anxiety subsides.

Mild, occasional anxiety is not something to treat or worry about. It is only part of normal neurological functioning.

When anxiety reaches a certain level of intensity and frequency, however, it stops being useful. Rather than fueling foresight, it becomes a source of suffering and distraction. This kind of relentless anxiety makes it hard to fully enjoy life. It is often a symptom of an anxiety disorder.

For example, consider an employee who experiences a high level of anxiety even after meeting deadlines or relaxing at home on a Friday night. Or worse, imagine someone who constantly feels like they are going to die, despite there being no threats to their life.

People with anxiety as a mental illness have feelings of anxiety that do not go away and can interfere with daily activities such as job performance and relationships, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Anya Shumilina, a director at the Behavioral Associates therapy practice, said those with anxiety disorders tend to feel like anxiety is controlling them. She offered the example of anxiety preventing someone from flying, causing them to miss important events.

During her work as Director of Psychiatry at Mountainside Treatment Facility, Dr. Shanthi Mogali worked with anxious clients who woke up and wondered, “How am I going to take on this day?” Simply thinking about getting up and dealing with their anxiety throughout the day was terrifying.

Here are a few more symptoms that often indicate an anxiety disorder or other mental illness:

  • Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or having the mind go blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)

To learn more, check out our piece, “Different Types of Anxiety Disorders.”

If you believe you are living with an anxiety disorder or other mental illness, contact a licensed therapist for a diagnosis. You can also consider various treatment options and coping tactics for anxiety. They generally involve a combination of addressing beliefs that cause anxiety and practicing a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and meditation.

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Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace