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Normal Anxiety Versus Clinical Anxiety: When Should You Seek Help

Normal Anxiety Versus Clinical Anxiety: When Should You Seek Help

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The staff at The OCD & Anxiety Center are delighted to introduce our blog! All of our therapists will be contributing their own ideas and approaches to various mental health topics on a regular basis. Our hope is to continue to spread awareness and reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues. Thank you for reading!

By Ashley Butterfield, PsyD

Anxiety is a normal emotional response, common even. Sometimes anxiety is known by other names, such as worry, fear, nervousness, etc. The stimuli that trigger anxiety are numerous and variable. The majority of people can identify something that is currently provoking anxiety or worry in their lives. Thus, prevalence rates of anxiety both “normal” and clinical are quite high. Bottom line: you have previously, are currently, or will experience anxiety in your lifetime.

The reason why anxiety is so common is a very important reason: anxiety helps us to survive. Thus, although it may sound surprising, experiencing anxiety is necessary to our preserving our physical integrity and to maintaining our overall well-being. Although clinical anxiety if left untreated will allow us to survive, it can greatly diminish our ability to thrive. Anxiety’s primary purpose is to keep us safe. In a nutshell, anxiety works as our body and mind’s alarm system. It constantly surveys our internal and external environments for threats/stressors/triggers, which can present in the various forms of thoughts, mental images, physical sensations, physical environments, specific people, places, and things, events, etc. When any of these stimuli are detected, we may experience anxiety, which prompts us to respond and mobilizes us to act. Human beings are wired to react in this manner. However, when an individual has an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (i.e., clinical anxiety), their alarm system is far more sensitive and will become activated more frequently and for longer periods of time. Often it will become activated over triggers that are relatively benign. For a more specific list of clinical anxiety indicators, please refer to the list developed by The Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety http://www.worrywisekids.org/node/43. Although this list is geared towards children, it is also applicable for adolescents and even adults.

The high prevalence of anxiety raises the question: how can you distinguish “normal” anxiety from clinical anxiety? A few factors to consider in light of this differentiation are: intensity, impairment, and duration. Anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders (i.e., clinical anxiety) are excessive in nature. In other words, triggers provoke a greater level of anxiety in a person with clinical anxiety than it does for the majority of people. It is also important to consider developmental norms for behavior, particularly in children and adolescents (i.e., what is typical behavior for a five-year-old would be inappropriate for a fifteen-year-old). Clinical anxiety is also persistent, meaning that it is present for a significant period of time (usually at least six months). Thus, displaying anxious symptoms for a week, in anticipation of a big presentation you have to give at school or work, would not qualify as clinical anxiety (although it may be very distressing). The intensity and duration of clinical anxiety typically lead to functional impairments in important areas of life, such as activities of daily living (ADLs), including toileting, maintaining personal hygiene, and eating, as well as academic/occupational functioning, interpersonal (social) functioning, religious/spiritual participation, and health behaviors, including obtaining adequate sleep and engaging in regular physical exercise.

The prevalence of anxiety disorders is on the rise. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (https://adaa.org/), “An estimated 264 million people worldwide have an anxiety disorder.” There is good news and bad news regarding this statistic. First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: many people who need professional help, for one reason or another, do not seek it. As we discussed above, anxiety disorders are persistent, not transient. They can cause a great deal of distress and impairment. However, many people learn to adapt their lives to accommodate their anxiety, which may cause their worlds to become very small and limited as a consequence. Now for the good news. The good news is this: anxiety disorders are highly treatable and a significant number of individuals who complete a standard “dose” of evidence-based therapy maintain their treatment gains long after therapy has ended. Effective treatment will not only facilitate symptom reduction, but it will also enable the demolition of anxiety-induced restrictions, thereby enhancing quality of life. However, before anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders can be effectively treated, people must be able to recognize the red flags and be able to identify when/if anxiety crosses the line into clinical territory. The first steps toward addressing clinical anxiety lie in awareness of the signs and willingness to seek appropriate care.

The treatment team at The OCD & Anxiety Center is ready to assist you in developing a treatment plan that fits your needs and helps you achieve meaningful, long-lasting change. Call or email us today to schedule your first appointment with one of our specialists! (630) 522-3124; info@theocdandanxietycenter.com.

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2805 Butterfield Road suite 120
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(630) 522-3124

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