Lots Of People Wonder… Is Healthy Anxiety A Mental Illness?
“Is healthy anxiety a mental illness? What does it mean that I’m a worrier. I worry about almost everything. I’ve always been that way. Is this normal? Is there something wrong with me? Do I have a mental illness?”
With anxiety and stress levels at all time highs and climbing, these are questions I hear people ask a lot. They want to understand when is anxiety healthy, and when does it cross the line into a mental illness. When I get asked this question, I know a person is trying to understand their anxiety and determine how much they should be worrying about it. People want to know when their anxiety is a problem, and when they should get help.
Anxiety becomes a mental illness when it interrupts your ability to lead a productive healthy life for an extended period of time. Some signs your anxiety may be creeping into mental illness include it keeping you consistently awake at night, suppressing your appetite, distracting you from accomplishing your responsibilities, generating fears that you know are unreasonable, and generally depressing your outlook on life. Anxiety at its worst can take over your life, or at least your sense of control over your life. When you start worrying about your anxiety, this is usually a good sign you have reason to worry and you could use some help.
However, there are broad experiences of anxiety and worry that don’t come close to such dire descriptions. Much of the anxiety we all feel is completely normal, and even healthy. Anxiety at its best has an important job to do: signal to us that something we care about is in danger. And the less we worry about our anxiety, the better we can access what important information it is trying to tell us.
Still not sure your anxiety is healthy? Here are four important questions to ask yourself in assessing whether your anxiety is healthy.
- Does it relate to something identifiable that makes sense… is it rational? Contrary to popular belief, not all anxiety is irrational. Most anxiety is actually quite rational: ‘will I get in trouble if I don’t finish my project by the deadline?’; ‘what if I gain weight if I don’t exercise?’; “will I say the right thing to keep his interest on our date?’. Anxiety can do an impressive job of focusing us on rational, reasonable things we care about in our lives. This is a normal way anxiety operates as a resource in all of our lives, alerting us to things we care about.
- Is it in the background reminding you of something you care about but aren’t focusing on? Like a digital reminder on your calendar, anxiety is your inborn reminder system to make sure you don’t forget about something important to you. Whether your taxes, your health, or that friend you haven’t called back, anxiety can serve as an important reminder of important things that deserve our attention. This is your anxiety doing its job: reminding you of something you care about that needs your attention.
- Is it uncomfortable, but doesn’t get in the way of your life? In other words, can you feel it, but put it to the side until you have the time to address its signal? This is one way anxiety works – nagging us about something important and prodding us to finish up whatever else we are doing so that we can turn our attention to it.
- Does it diminish as you take action to solve the problem? A final key point about healthy anxiety is that it diminishes when you focus on what its signaling and take action. Worry about your taxes can’t really diminish until you start working on your taxes. Anxiety about your health continues until you take action to do something about it (recognize the first step, make an appointment, or devote more time to the solution). You don’t have to solve the problem to quiet anxiety. You just have to be doing what you can solve it. As problems are addressed, anxiety is no longer needed and quiets.
Anxiety is not in the business of making us feel comfortable or happy: it’s designed to motivate and steer us towards attending to the things we care about most. Like a devoted, but prickly friend, anxiety is always by our side willing to harangue us until we give it the attention it demands.
Thinking about anxiety as a resource can help you embrace its usefulness and protect against unhealthy escalation that can lead to mental illness. Anxiety has our back, and its experience is nothing to fear even if it is uncomfortable. Inaction, avoidance, and fear of discomfort are escalators to anxiety, and left unchecked can drive healthy anxiety into mental illness.
Harnessing healthy anxiety can take practice. If you are looking for more support in using your anxiety to your advantage, check out my anxiety blog, download my free ebook, or sign up for my newsletter.