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