- Anxiety is a normal emotion that can be helpful and motivating in small doses.
- However, it's important to be able to tell when anxiety crosses the line and leads to problematic behavior.
- Worrying signs include how long anxiety lasts and how it affects a person's sleep and relationships.
Anxiety is an emotion we’ve all felt—the uneasiness, the restlessness, and the non-stop overthinking. The truth, as any psychologist will tell you, is that anxiety is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it is a response your mind and body create to adapt to situations that could be threatening. There is a point, however, when this response can start to work against you.
How do you know when your anxiety is crippling you instead of helping you?
While the best option is to see a licensed mental health practitioner, it is also helpful to educate yourself on these three signs that might point to serious anxiety.
1. Your anxiety doesn’t go down with the sun
A high level of anxiety throughout the day that does not taper by the evening is a cause for concern.
According to a recent study, for most anxious people, worrying typically abates by day’s end. But this is not the case for people who have higher levels of worry-proneness.
“Worry can become a cause for concern if the frequency and/or intensity of the worry is disproportionate to the source of the worry,” explains Rebecca Cox of Vanderbilt University. “If I’m so worried about an upcoming test that I can’t focus on studying, or I’m so frequently worried about storms that I don’t leave my house, then worry has crossed into a problematic range.”
Essentially, she explains, worry has likely reached a clinical level if it is interfering with your goals and values of daily life.
Previous research says that worry may function to keep anxiety at high but predictable levels in order to avoid experiencing an unexpected shift in emotion.
If you are suffering from evening anxiety, Cox has the following advice for you:
- High levels of worry-proneness and generalized anxiety disorder are common and treatable. Those looking for treatment should find providers of evidence-based psychotherapy from reputable organizations.
- Healthy lifestyle factors, like prioritizing sleep and exercising regularly, may also help with worry.
- We can also decrease worry’s power by accepting the uncertainty in life. When we are worrying about something we have little or no control over, inserting some “maybe” thinking can be a powerful challenge to worry. “Maybe I will fail that exam, maybe a terrible storm will hit… maybe, maybe not,” Cox explains. “Accepting and tolerating that uncertainty can help us to stop attempting to control the future by worrying.”
2. Your anxiety is leaking into your dreams.
One recent study that tracked the dreams of clinically anxious people revealed some fascinating commonalities.
Specifically, several dream topics seemed to be more prevalent in anxiety patients compared to healthy persons. These themes include:
- Being chased and pursued
- Being physically attacked and facing aggressive actions
- Being frozen with fright
- Quarrels and verbally aggressive interactions
- Anxiety and fear about aggressive actions from others
- Fear of falling and being in danger of falling
- Being excluded and rejected in social situations
- Death of parents and family members
- Accidents and car or plane crashes
- Facing failures and being unsuccessful
Other defining characteristics of these dreams were:
- Previous love interests: Dreamers’ ex-partners or ex-spouses appeared more frequently in the dream contents of anxiety-disordered individuals than in dreams of healthy people
- High speed and power: Dreams of anxiety-disordered patients were also characterized by the presence of high velocity and fast speed, in general, and, subsequently, fast-moving characters, objects, transport, and vehicles.
- High emotional intensity: The presence of an anxiety disorder instigates a higher overall subjective intensity of dream experiences and dream imagery. The dream contents in anxiety patients not only exist in large numbers but are also experienced with a particularly high subjective intensity and emphasis.
If your dreams are characterized by these types of images and themes, psychologist Anton Rimsh of the University of Düsseldorf advises consulting with a practicing psychoanalyst, as they have experience working not only with anxiety disorders but also with dream contents.
3. Your anxiety is stressing out your significant other.
One study that tracked anxiety levels in 33 married couples (the wife in each case suffered from clinical anxiety) found that on the days the wife’s anxiety was exacerbated, the husband reported their relationship as being distressing.
In most cases, the responsibility to accommodate or alleviate their wife’s anxiety was shouldered by the husband. In situations where the husband was able to lighten the situation, the wife reported the relationship as positive. But if the husband reacted with anger or annoyance, it made her situation worse, creating a negative and distressing feedback loop of increased anxiety and hostility.
The story, however, does not end there. Just because the husband was able to temporarily handle their wife’s anxiety didn’t mean that the impact of the interaction on the relationship was positive. This was especially true for relationships where the go-to technique to dissipate anxiety was avoidance-based.
“It is possible that when couples collude in managing anxiety through avoidance, they may inadvertently maintain or exacerbate the degree of shared distress from day to day,” state the authors.
If a relationship has reached the stage where anxiety (or the avoidance of anxiety) is controlling the dynamic and level of distress, it may be time for expert intervention. An honest and open dialogue with your partner, a counselor, or a couples’ therapist is strongly recommended in these situations.
Mental health issues, like physical ailments, are unavoidable. The problem begins when they go unaddressed for long periods of time. Keeping a watch on your anxiety levels and seeking out help when you need it can greatly benefit your health and lifestyle.