When Does Anxiety Become a Problem? (And How to Get Help)

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Thursday, November 3 2022

Anxiety is something every person feels at some point. It’s part of being human. In fact, anxiety can be a helpful and necessary feeling — allowing us to anticipate obstacles, remain cautious, and stay organized. 

That being said, feeling too much anxiety — to the point at which it starts to negatively impact your day-to-day life — can become a problem, and potentially lead to a disorder. If you're having these thoughts or feelings, you might be asking yourself "When do these feelings of anxiety start to be a problem?" or "How can I get help for my anxiety?"

Read on to learn more about anxiety, why it’s important to get treatment for an anxiety disorder, and how a screening recommendation can make it easier to get the help you need. 

When does anxiety become a problem?

Experiencing occasional stress is a normal part of life. However, if you feel it is beginning to impact your daily life you might be wondering when to get help for anxiety.

“If you don't have stress or anxiety, it’s actually a bigger concern,” says SonderMind Chief Medical Officer Doug Newton, MD, MPH. “You probably aren’t living a life where you’re going to develop appropriately and may have some challenges.” 

There are, however, a few telltale signs that anxiety has become a problem: 

When anxiety impairs daily function

According to Dr. Newton, “Anxiety becomes a disorder when it impairs functioning, especially over a period of time.” When anxiety becomes problematic, you may experience one (or all) of the three A’s: 

  • Avoidance: You may begin to avoid things that stress you out.
  • Ambivalence: You may ruminate on things and not be able to get past them, which can impact how you think through things and problem solve. 
  • Actions: You may act or behave differently.

Take this example: You may have anxiety about getting on a flight. But if you still get on the flight despite this anxiety, it’s not disrupting your ability to function. Conversely, if this anxiety causes you to not go through with getting on the flight, it is impairing your ability to function and live your life. That’s when anxiety can become a problem and potentially a disorder. 

When anxiety affects physical health

In some cases, there is a connection between your mental health and physical health. When anxiety gets to this point, it can also be a sign that anxiety is becoming a problem. 

“Anxiety has been associated with a higher likelihood of getting sick because it affects our immune system,” says Dr. Newton. 

Anxiety can lead to a racing heart, shortness of breath, stomach discomfort, and poor sleep. 

Dr. Newton says that poor sleep not only leads to exhaustion, but even more anxiety. “When we ruminate on things, we’re not sleeping as well, and when we don’t sleep as well, we’re more anxious. That’s a vicious cycle,” he says.  

If you’ve felt frequent anxiety and think it may be impairing your ability to function, you’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are a real issue that many people are experiencing. 

Screening for anxiety can help identify symptoms and decrease stigma

In the U.S., anxiety disorders have been steadily increasing among adults. In fact, data shows that one in five adults in the U.S. has an anxiety disorder, yet many anxiety disorders go undiagnosed and untreated. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and it’s still not fully understood in the medical community why this is.  

To help address this growing issue, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has issued a final recommendation that adults under 65 be screened for anxiety by their doctors. This is the first time the USPSTF has made a final recommendation on screening for anxiety disorders in adults, including those who are pregnant and postpartum. This final recommendation is in addition to their recommendation that all children aged 8 to 18 get screened for anxiety at their regular primary care appointments. The USPSTF is a panel of primary care professionals who make research-based recommendations for screenings, behavioral health, and preventive medicines.

The goal of the anxiety screening recommendation is to identify symptoms of a potential anxiety disorder and connect people with the professional help they may need to feel better. 

Because the screening for adults can be done by any medical professional — not just a mental health professional or primary care provider (PCP) — the recommendation may open the door for more people to get screened. 

“This recommendation allows people to have a more evidence-based opportunity to get screened,” says. Dr. Newton. “I think it’s going to increase access to mental health care in many ways — perhaps getting people screened who may not have known about it or had the ability to talk about it previously.”

This can be especially impactful for certain populations who have experienced disparities that have led to a higher incidence of anxiety disorders, such as the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and LGBTQ+ communities

The recommendation also has the potential to normalize anxiety and other mental health screenings. “Doing this screening, just as you would a blood pressure screening or a cholesterol screening, really does decrease stigma and therefore increases access to care,” says Dr. Newton. 

What does screening for anxiety look like?

If you have a doctor’s appointment coming up, or are considering going to a medical professional to get screened, you’re probably wondering what the screening looks like, how long it will take, and what the experience may be like. There’s good news — it’s quick and straightforward.

“Anxiety screeners ask very common questions. One of the more common screeners out there is really a symptom checklist. For example, ‘Are you worried more days than not?,’ or ‘Are you feeling like you’re not sleeping well?’ They’re not bizarre or strange questions,” says Dr. Newton. 

A common anxiety screener is the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7 (GAD-7), a seven-item questionnaire used to assess symptoms associated with stress or anxiety. This and other common evidence-based anxiety screeners have you report on how you’ve been feeling in the previous two weeks to see how prevalent your symptoms are. 

Results of the screening can be determined quickly — often in the same visit. If the anxiety screening determines you could benefit from seeing a mental health professional, your PCP or the medical professional who screened you will refer you to a mental health provider for further evaluation. 

Evidence shows getting professional help for anxiety works

Seeking mental health care can be a little nerve wracking and intimidating. It’s normal to feel this way, especially if you’ve never been to therapy before. Rest assured, getting professional mental health care such as talk therapy can be highly beneficial in helping you manage anxiety and other mental health concerns. 

“We know that people do get better, especially those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, with therapy,” says Dr. Newton. 

Going to therapy for the first time might be a little easier if you know what to expect. Therapy generally starts with having an initial conversation with a mental health professional such as a licensed therapist, so they can get to know you. You can ask your therapist questions, too, to determine if they’re a good fit for you. 

These initial conversations with your therapist should go beyond talking about your symptoms. 

“What’s going well for you — that should be a part of the conversation,” says Dr. Newton. “It’s not just talking about a disorder or a dysfunction, but also what the positives are in your life and really taking assessment of that.” 

Everyone’s therapy journey looks different. At the end of the day, what matters most about going to therapy is that you’re getting the support and care you need to better manage your symptoms and feel better overall. 

How to get help 

Help is available. If you’re feeling like anxiety is affecting your ability to function, or simply want to check your symptoms, you can go to your PCP or a medical professional to get screened. If you feel you could benefit from professional help for anxiety or any mental health issue, SonderMind can help you connect with a mental health professional who’s right for your unique needs

“Knowing that you can get quick access to care and be able to use insurance is really important in getting people to the provider who is right for them,” says Dr. Newton. 

Moreover, SonderMind uses an evidence-based approach to care that’s proven to help people get better. 

“The data we have at SonderMind shows that people often within six weeks can start to feel better,” says Dr. Newton. “It’s really that personalized approach, comprehensive approach, and showing that there are good outcomes. SonderMind is able to show those outcomes back to the person so you can see you are getting better. That can be really reaffirming.”

Seeking professional help for anxiety or any mental health concern is a brave decision and an important first step toward feeling like yourself again. If you feel you could benefit from therapy, SonderMind can help you connect with a therapist.

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