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11 Questions You Might Secretly Have About Anxiety

Are you worried that you worry too much?

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Worrying, stressing out, freaking out, full-blown meltdowns: A lot of us have definitely been there.

Many of us know what it feels like to feel anxiety. But how much anxiety is too much? What's normal? What's healthy? What's something to actually, you know, worry about?

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We had a lot of questions. So we asked a couple experts to help us out.

BuzzFeed Life spoke to John M. Hettema, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry and director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Here's what they had to say.

1. First thing's first: What is anxiety?

"Anxiety is the expectation of a threat in the future," Albano tells BuzzFeed Life. Think of it as your brain anticipating things that could go wrong, and wondering how it's going to deal with them. You can experience symptoms of anxiety both mentally and physically.

Worth noting here: Anxiety is actually totally natural, and in many cases, it's the appropriate way for your body to respond to things. "All anxiety at a reasonable level is normal," Albano tells BuzzFeed Life. "Worry, when it's reasonable, drives us to get things done, to advance ourselves." So it's not just normal, it's beneficial!

2. OK, but what is a "reasonable level" of anxiety supposed to be?

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

Well...it's pretty subjective, honestly. It's also going to be different from person to person and scenario to scenario. The best way for you to determine a "reasonable" level is to think about what might be an unreasonable level. For example: "[When you're] having some sort of fearful or anxious response that is excessive compared to the actual threat," Hettema tells BuzzFeed Life.

Sometimes when you're in the thick of it, that can be hard to judge. So here are some questions to ask yourself:

Does it feel like you are incapable of not being worried?

Can you only focus on what will go wrong in certain scenarios?

Are you very worried about something that, rationally, you know has an incredibly small likelihood of happening?

Is your anxiety interfering with your life in negative ways? As in, is it hurting your relationships, your job, your family?

Are you having panic attacks?

Do you find yourself hiding, running away, or staying home to avoid social interactions out of dread?

Is your anxiety making you miserable and unhappy more often than not, even if it isn't otherwise impacting other areas of your life?

Answering yes to a few of these scenarios would indicate that your anxiety may have exceeded what is "reasonable," and has become truly problematic for you.

3. What are some other anxiety symptoms I should pay attention to?

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

Anxiety sufferers can feel tense and restless, have trouble sleeping through the night, and find it difficult to concentrate. "Their anxiety affects not only their thoughts but their emotions and behaviors throughout the day," adds Hettema.

In particularly intense cases, you might have trouble breathing, feel your heart racing, or even experience symptoms that can feel like a heart attack. Your body gets flooded with stress hormones that can have some incredibly unpleasant physical feelings.

Anxiety can also have a paralyzing effect: It can make you feel so overwhelmed that you end up not able to do much of anything. (Think: When you have a LOT of work to do, but you get so anxious about it that you end up just playing on Facebook for hours and hours and putting it off...and then make yourself even more anxious as the deadline looms.)

4. I've heard that there are different types of anxiety — social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, agoraphobia, PTSD, and more. How do I know which one I might have?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the manual that mental health providers in the United States use to categorize and diagnose mental health disorders. According to the DSM-5, there are some major anxiety and depression-related categories: Anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, depressive disorders, and somatic symptom and related disorders.

Different types of anxiety disorders are grouped under each of these categories — for instance, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety disorder are among numerous disorders that are considered anxiety disorders. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding, and trichotillomania are listed under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. And so on. See more about the different types of anxiety and depressive disorders here.

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5. What if I have a range of symptoms that don't cleanly fit into any one particular disorder?

One thing that's a bit confusing for a lot of people is that many of these disorders tend to share symptoms with other similar disorders as described in the DSM-5. And some people might exhibit one or two symptoms for a particular disorder, but not enough of the symptoms to actually qualify as having that disorder. That doesn't mean that you don't have a problem with anxiety, though, or that you can't get help.

So, for example: Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include "persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things," according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And social anxiety disorder is "the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations." And you might exhibit symptoms that align with both disorders, or that partially align with them both but not totally or completely with either one. And so on.

From a practical perspective, the biggest thing you should pay attention to isn't so much what type of anxiety you may or may not have, but rather if your anxiety is interfering with your life, in whatever form it does take. Your doctor can help you narrow down explicitly what's wrong, if it's necessary. Or they may choose to help you out in other ways, without settling on a specific label or diagnosis.

6. I definitely have anxiety, and it sucks. Does that mean there's something wrong with my brain?

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

Your brain's not wrong, it's just overreacting. Albano tells BuzzFeed Life that anxiety disorders stem from our frontal cortex, the home of evolved thinking and reasoning. The problem arises when we get caught up in overthinking, causing us to slip into a process of focusing on what will go wrong without weighing what could go right.

7. Is this in my genes, or is it just me?

The short answer: Yes.

Hettema says that fears come and go as a part of normal development, and the focus of them changes as we grow. Why some persist is a combination of genetics, personality, life events, and whatever current stresses threaten your peace of mind. "But exactly how this combination unfolds for any one individual is hard to predict," says Hettema.

8. How do I fix this?

Here's the positive news: Anxiety disorders are among the most treatable and manageable psychiatric conditions out there. "The approach to anxiety disorders is usually two-pronged: medications to tackle the brain's chemistry, coupled with some form of psychotheraphy," Hettema tells BuzzFeed Life.

9. Whoa, psychotherapy? Pills?!

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

It sounds intense, but psychotherapy is just therapy for your mental and emotional health. The most common form for anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy, meant to change your patterns of thinking toward what is scary and dangerous, as well as change the way you react, particularly avoidance. "You will never learn that your fear was out of proportion to the threat unless you're exposed to it," Hettema explains.

Your therapist can also help you learn different coping mechanisms — where you learn to identify your anxiety triggers and also learn behaviors that can help you calm down before the anxiety gets out of hand. Here are 36 small ideas for ways to quiet your anxiety before it overcomes you.

As for medication, general treatments include sedatives (think Xanax) to give a temporary calm, and other medications meant to stimulate your serotonin production. Since you have to take them for months at the right dose to be able to see an effect, and the same medication doesn't work for everybody, it's important to work with a psychiatrist to figure out what's best for you. Some people don't need medication at all; some people only need medication during particularly stressful times in their lives; some people benefit from taking medication consistently. It's important to figure out with a doctor what works best for you.

10. OK. All good information! But...why can't I just avoid the things that freak me out? Do I really need to get professional help for this?

"The thing is that adults learn to accommodate their anxiety — not necessarily in a healthy way, but they find ways around it," Albano tells BuzzFeed Life. "People avoid whole careers just because of the anxiety associated with it. We want people to live up to their full potential, not tip-toe around fear."

11. OK, fine. Where can I find these professionals you keep talking about?

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

A great place to start is the ADAA's website to help find a qualified professional near you. Your general physician may have a few people they can refer you to as well. The Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders is also an excellent resource to learn more about anxiety disorders and treatment options.

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