This article was last updated on March 2, 2022.
In small doses, worry, stress, fear and anxiety can be motivating. Excessive anxiety or stress, however, can leave you moody, unproductive and unable to make decisions.
According to the American Psychological Association External Site, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased heart rate and shortness of breath. In addition to these symptoms of anxiety, you may also experience sweating, trembling, insomnia, headaches and gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Chronic anxiety can weaken your immune system, lead to heart disease, diseases of the GI system and a whole host of other serious health conditions.
Long-term anxiety can also lead to substance abuse, depression and other mental issues.
"Normal" anxiety is that feeling you may get when you make a major life decision, face a problem at work, or before you take a test. This type of anxiety is usually short lived, related to a specific life event, and doesn’t dramatically interfere with other aspects of your life.
"Anxiety is a natural, normal part of life,” says Dr. Barbara Muller, medical director at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “Sometimes it may not feel that way, but it’s normal to feel anxious. The key is to learn how to manage that anxiety."
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Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, cause ongoing symptoms that may impact all areas of life External Site: with your family, in social situations, and at school or work. The symptoms generally start around 19 years of age, however, 25 percent of cases will start by age 14. Muller advises that an anxiety disorder shouldn't be diagnosed until the symptoms affect an important aspect of a person's life.
"There’s a big difference between being occasionally anxious due to a life event and being so anxious that you can't function in normal daily activities," says Muller.
5 facts about anxiety disorders
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness External Site in the U.S., affecting 40 million Americans over age 18.
- There is more than one type of anxiety disorder. In fact, several types of anxiety disorders External Site exist, each with its own specific set of symptoms.
- Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
- Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those suffering receive treatment.
- Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events.
When to talk to your doctor
If you find yourself constantly worrying, feeling restless, or finding it difficult to control your feelings of anxiety, talk to your personal doctor. Your doctor will be able to help you understand your symptoms and triggers to determine the best treatment option for you — whether that be through therapy, prescription drugs or a combination of the two.
If you don't have a personal doctor, log in or register for myWellmark® Opens New Window to find one near you.
Looking for realistic tips to help control your anxiety? Retrain your brain to ward off worries.