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How Can You Tell If You Have Anxiety?

Learn how to know if anxiety is serious--and when it’s just a hard part of life.

By
Rob Lamberts, MD,
September 21, 2010
Episode #064

Page 1 of 2

The next two articles will cover an area that takes up a lot of my time in practice: anxiety and depression. These two problems are not just mental health issues; their presence can also greatly affect a person’s physical health. Today I’ll focus on anxiety, although I will start out with some general principles around both of these conditions.

How Can You Tell If You Have Anxiety?

When discussing anxiety and depression, we first have to define terms because both words represent emotions and medical conditions. Anxiety, the emotion, is a normal part of life. If you see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror, you get anxious. Simply feeling anxious is not cause for medical concern. The same is true for the emotion in depression--sadness--which happens as a normal part of life.

Clinical anxiety and depression are not the same as the emotions, although the emotions are present. These are real medical problems that have a big impact on your life. Two things separate emotional states and clinical conditions: duration and severity. In order to “officially” diagnose clinical anxiety and depression, symptoms have to last more than three months and have a significant impact on the daily function of life (although in reality, they are often diagnosed before 3 months).

I’m going to leave depression for next week and focus on anxiety now. 

What Is Anxiety?

So what is anxiety? Anxiety, the emotion, is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness. If you had a magic button in your car that made the police car behind you disappear, the presence of those lights wouldn’t be so traumatic. It’s the inability to control things we think may hurt us that makes us anxious. When clinical anxiety exists, it makes life feel out of control...which creates more anxiety. That is perhaps the hardest thing about clinical anxiety: you get anxious about being anxious.

How Is OCD Related to Anxiety?

But anxiety takes many forms, many of which don’t look like anxiety. When a person feels out of control, they often find ways to compensate. A good example of this is obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. Many people with OCD have something in their life--past or present--that they want to control but can’t. Perhaps they were abused as a child, or perhaps they’ve lost spouse or child. Their reaction is to control something that is in their power--like keeping their house clean, washing their hands, or locking the door. That attempt to control things becomes a compulsion--something they can’t stop from doing.

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