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When Does Anxiety Become a Mental Health Disorder?

What Is Anxiety?

Many people experience anxiety as a normal reaction to stress. It can tell us how to respond to perceived threats. Some amount of anxiety is perfectly natural and actually helpful for us.

For instance, imagine you have a presentation at work or school coming up. Naturally, you might feel a little stressed and anxious about it. You really want to do a good job, and anxiety can actually motivate you to be extra prepared. Another situation in which anxiety may be helpful is if you are planning a camping trip. You may be anxious about mosquitos eating you alive or someone getting an injury, and because of your perceived concerns, you prepare more adequately by packing bug spray and a first aid kit.

Note how in both scenarios above anxiety is created from an anticipated threat or concern that a person has. Anxiety is different from general fear. Fear is more of a reaction to an immediate threat like a wild animal coming towards you during a hike and getting that “fight or flight” reaction. Anxiety is different because it's usually characterized by the fear of what could happen in the future rather than what is actually happening at the moment.

While anxiety looks different for everybody, here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Feeling nervous
  • Having a sense of dread
  • Thinking something bad is right around the corner
  • Overthinking situations and replaying certain situations over and over again in your head
  • Problems sleeping at night
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Sweating

When Does Anxiety Become a Mental Health Disorder?

At this point, you may be wondering, if everyone experiences some amount of anxiety, then how can you tell if you have an anxiety disorder? One of the biggest indicators of an anxiety disorder is if your anxieties are so overwhelming that they prevent you from doing the things you would normally do.

Normal anxiety versus an anxiety disorder can be observed in the following scenario:

Normal anxiety while driving will help you stay more alert and cautious of those around you. It will help you drive safer.

An anxiety disorder could make the idea of driving become so overwhelming that you cannot bear to step in a car anymore.

It’s very likely that an anxiety disorder exists if the anxiety is disproportionate to the situation or if it makes you unable to function normally. Researchers have also found that there are certain risk factors that could contribute to developing an anxiety disorder.

Those risk factors include:

  • Feeling overly shy or distressed in new situations as a child
  • Exposure to negative life events that cause a lot of stress
  • A history of anxiety or other mental health disorders in relatives

Symptoms of anxiety can also be exasperated by health conditions like a thyroid issue or certain substances like medications or caffeine.

Anxiety Disorders

There are a few different kinds of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and social anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by persistent anxiety that interferes with a person’s daily life. It can persist for weeks, months, or even years. Someone with GAD may spend several hours each day worrying about things, and become overly exhausted from worry and unable to focus and complete tasks.

Panic disorder

People with panic disorder have frequent panic attacks that can occur seemingly out of nowhere. There isn’t always a threat or trigger associated with the panic attacks either, which makes them very unpredictable.


Phobias are strong aversions to certain objects or situations. People with phobias experience immediate fear and anxiety around specific things and often take steps to avoid their phobias at all costs. Common phobias include a fear of flying, heights, blood, or spiders.

Social anxiety disorder

People who have social anxiety disorder have intense fears or anxiety about social situations. It can cause someone to avoid social interactions with others or avoid leaving their homes/ comfort zones. People with a social anxiety disorder often become embarrassed by how they feel others will perceive their anxiety.

When to Seek Treatment

If you suspect you may have a mental health disorder or find that your worries are making it difficult to function and be yourself, then you should seek help right away.

Depending on how severe or what kind of anxiety disorder a person is experiencing, they would receive a treatment plan catered to their individual needs. Some common treatments for anxiety disorders include psychotherapy, medications, or complementary health approaches.


Psychotherapy is talk therapy. Talking with a mental health professional can help work through your emotions and help you develop coping skills. Oftentimes in psychotherapy, the conversations are led by the therapist to help you build connections and gain insights into your feelings.


Psychiatric medications are used to correct chemicals in the brain in order to help a person regulate their emotions. When being prescribed a medication for a mental health disorder, there is no one size fits all. Doctors look at medical history and review which medicines may fit best for their patients. It may take trying multiple medications to find the one that really makes a difference. It’s important when prescribed medications to be consistent in taking the medication as prescribed and being patient while waiting for results. Some medications may take several weeks before seeing improvements in mental health, and it may even take trying a few different medications before you find the one that works best for you.

An effective medication can be life-changing for someone experiencing an anxiety disorder. It can lessen the feelings of dread, and improve energy levels and concentration. Medications can help a person feel more like themselves and more willing to engage in other helpful treatment plans like psychotherapy.

Complementary health approaches

Complementary health approaches are non-traditional treatments for mental health outside of therapy and medication. They often include engaging in best health practices to take care of one’s body like eating healthy foods, taking the right vitamins and supplements, meditation, and exercise.

It’s always a good idea to take care of your physical health, but the best treatment plan is the one that works. Complementary health practices are most effective when used in addition to other forms of treatments like medication and psychotherapy. It’s always important to make sure no supplements or alternative methods will interfere with any existing medications or treatment.

No one treatment plan works for everyone and it’s important to have help in finding what works best for you. Mental health professionals are there to help you navigate and cope with your emotions.

If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety that are interfering with your life, reach out to a mental health professional. Get the help you need to gain control of your life. You can contact our health professionals at Jackson House anytime by calling 888-255-9280.

It's time to feel better

We are here to help and we are in-network with most insurance providers. Call us for a free and confidential consultation.

If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.