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  • Writer's pictureAmy Kay Cole, PhD

Anxiety: How Much is Too Much?

I’ve written about the anxiety epidemic on this blog before, and I’m sure I will again. It’s more common than depression and often coincides with depression. For decades, psychologists have identified anxiety as a widespread problem. Addressing the problem is tricky because the goal is not to eradicate anxiety from our lives. We all need some anxiety. It is a motivator to be on time, pay our bills, clean our house, and be productive at work. Without it, we tend not to accomplish much. Psychologists are interested in finding the ideal amount of anxiety. It’s a challenging goal because the ideal amount of anxiety differs for each of us. In a perfect world, we would have just enough anxiety to harness its energy to live a full life but not so much that we felt overwhelmed.

It can be difficult to determine when anxiety gets out of the healthy, motivating range and moves into the problematic range. Psychologists frequently work with ruminators who rehash past situations and current worries continuously on a loop in their brain. Psychologists also see clients who have a sense of impending doom. The dread is often nonspecific with a general sense something will go wrong. Not knowing exactly what might go wrong prevents them from taking self-protective action to avoid the threat. In extreme cases, that anxiety feels paralyzing. Psychologists often see people who have physical symptoms of anxiety without understanding that anxiety is the cause. Insomnia, stomach problems, heart palpitations, chronic pain, tense muscles, headaches, migraines, and high blood pressure can all be related to anxiety. Unchecked, anxiety can lead to more serious medical problems such as heart attacks.

In recent years, psychologists have started viewing anxiety as addictive in some cases. Some people become addicted to volatility in the news and don’t know when to turn it off while other people become addicted to technology such as their phones and computers. They become obsessed with checking their phones to feel temporarily soothed, much like drug users getting “a fix”. I’ve worked with numerous people who are consumed with worry. They have convinced themselves they need to worry to be on top of their problems and identify potential threats down the road. I’m not talking about thrill seekers who chase the high of rollercoasters and bungie jumping, I’m talking about people who look for anxiety. For those people, relaxation feels unnatural; it can make them feel vulnerable. To what? They often don’t know, but they typically fear they won’t be on top of their game if they relax.

Anxiety at intense levels affects brain chemistry. It alters the way our brains use neurotransmitters and hormones. When anxiety becomes the norm, the brain needs to be retrained. That retraining can, and should, take many forms. Mindfulness, cardio, meditation, relaxation techniques, counseling, avoiding toxic people, limiting caffeine—they all contribute to healthier brain function and lower anxiety.

The attached article addresses the question of how much anxiety is too much. If you’re not sure whether your anxiety is in a healthy range, consider asking yourself the questions in the article. Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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