Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Questions about anxiety #9: How can I tell when anxiety is an illness or not?

This is an incredibly important question. Possibly the most important question that No Worries tries to address. I’m answering it here as succinctly as I can, after one of you asked it when I put out the call for questions about anxiety.

Bethan asked:

“How can you tell that you have anxiety and aren’t just feeling anxious like a “normal” person?”

It’s incredibly common these days to hear someone say one of the following or something similar:

  • I suffer from anxiety
  • I have anxiety
  • I have a problem with anxiety
  • My anxiety levels are very high just now
  • I can’t do X because of my anxiety

Or they might say it about someone else.

Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes

Everyone. If someone didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to react appropriately and safely if they found themselves in a dangerous situation. They wouldn’t be able to summon the extra energy to win a race or pull off their best performance in a test, audition or match. They would drift about never achieving anything or getting themselves out of danger. Even those who seem very laidback must get anxious before scary or worrying things.

Anxiety is the superpower (I’ll talk about this in more detail when I come to a question posed by Nathan in the comments here) that allowed me to jump an immense gate when chased by a goose.

I think this is what Bethan meant when she said “feeling anxious like a normal person”. Because feeling anxious is normal, healthy, natural and completely fine. It’s not a nice feeling, obviously, and we might want to avoid it. But avoiding it is not the answer. Learning to be in control of it is the answer.

Learning to be in control of it is the answer

This is the clue to how we tell when we “have anxiety”, “suffer anxiety” or when anxiety has become a problem: it’s when we can’t be in control of it.

Caution: in one sense we are never in control of anxiety. This is because anxiety will come upon us without us asking and will do so based on external factors (such as seeing a huge spider, an exam coming up, or a threat appearing from another human) and internal factors (such as our personality, existing fears, emotional state) which simply exist whether we like them or not.

So, do not judge or measure your anxiety by its arrival but by what you do with it next.

What I mean by being able (or not able) to control anxiety is what we do with it when it appears or when we anticipate it appearing.

Here are some ways in which you might not be in control of your anxiety and which we might consider a problem, unhealthy, unhelpful, not “completely fine”:

  • You often spend big chunks of time worrying about things which have no likelihood – for example, you worry a lot about illness when you have no symptoms, or failure when you’re doing fine, or financial difficulty when you’re coping OK, or the loss of a loved one when there’s no sign that this is likely.
  • You often lie awake at night going over and over (and over) things you’ve said or done or haven’t said or done.
  • You avoid situations because they will make you too uncomfortable, even though you know you really should go – for example, you refuse invitations or you pull out of things you’re meant to be doing.
  • You often experience physical signs of anxiety – such as heart racing, sweating, dry mouth, nausea – about relatively small things that other people take in their stride.
  • Your concentration is badly affected – for example you can’t focus on the thing you’re supposed to be doing because you’re worrying about something that isn’t what you should be thinking about right now. (Note that if you do have something genuinely distressing going on it’s entirely reasonable to find it hard to concentrate on other things. But think about whether this happens too often or too harmfully.)
  • You often ruminate in a way that is detrimental to your feeling of control over your life – for example, you find yourself going down a mental rabbit-hole as you catastrophise some quite imaginary consequence of something you’ve said or done. Your “what ifs” are out of control, to the extent that you would be embarrassed to tell someone what you were thinking.
  • You have feelings of dread when there’s nothing obvious to be dreading.
  • You experience panic attacks.

If you experience one or more of these, this does NOT mean you “have an anxiety disorder” or are ill. What it means is that you have a symptom of anxiety that requires some attention and that you would benefit – feel and function better and have a better life – if you were able to gain more control over this aspect of your life.

The more of those signs you experience and the more often, the more likely a professional would be to diagnose you with some level or form of anxiety disorder.

It’s a continuum. There is no blood test. You are somewhere on the scale of “feeling anxious like a normal person” and “suffering from anxiety in a way that is making your life harder to enjoy, less fulfilling and more problematic”.

Where you are on that scale is not fixed. You can move.

Remember I said “anxiety has become a problem… when we can’t be in control of it. I missed out the word “yet”.

You are not YET in control of your anxiety – but you can be.

My strong recommendation, based on many years of reading about (and experiencing) anxiety is that if you feel that some or many of the above criteria fit you, you try all these things:

  • Learn about anxiety and what it’s for in the body.
  • Learn to spot your signs and triggers and learn great strategies for managing unpleasant feelings when they come. Know yourself. Hear yourself.
  • Talk to others – but don’t talk about it too much, as there are so many other things in life that are more fun and productive to talk about!
  • Do not label or define yourself as “anxious” – you are human and you have the full range of human emotions and experiences. You are so very much more than a bundle of worries.
  • Don’t run away from things that make you anxious – find ways to face your fears and feel the pride when you get through.
  • Do seek professional help if you wish – sometimes reading all the wisdom in my books isn’t enough. That’s OK. But you could very well improve your anxiety levels just by reading, thinking, talking and listening to your inner wisdom.

BUT, if none of those things help and you feel that your anxiety is so far outside your control that all the wisdom I offer doesn’t touch it, please do seek professional help. You are genuinely suffering from anxiety and this is an illness which needs one to one support that can address the causes and symptoms. You might need medication as well as talking therapy. But also remember that this is how you are just now. Good treatment can work wonders and you can find a better state of mind, with help.

For the majority, though, anxiety is just that “normal” human experience. You might be more or less anxious than the people you know. It’s ok to be someone who is a bit more anxious than some others. It just means you haven’t yet found the ways of controlling it. But you can.

No Worries covers all this, and so much more. Buy a copy for yourself, your teenager, your friend, your school. It’s published on Aug 3rd by Walker Books. And I’m available for talks, on line and in person.


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