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Knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety

Anxiety is a normal part of life, and all of us will feel it from time to time. In small amounts, anxiety is manageable and even healthy. However, when a person begins feeling anxiety too often, it can interfere with daily life, cause unhappiness, and sometimes contribute to health issues. The key to staying healthy is learning to recognize unhealthy anxiety and seeking treatment for it when needed.

Why Do We Feel Anxiety?

Our bodies are designed to keep us safe. Anxiety evolved to help us respond to dangerous situations and increase our chances of survival. When you’re feeling anxious, your body produces extra adrenaline and cortisol because it is preparing to either fight or run from danger.

Adrenaline boosts your energy supply and increases your heart rate. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. This physical response is what kept our ancestors safe from harm.

When is Anxiety Helpful?

Although anxiety doesn’t always feel pleasant, a small amount of it can help us stay safe and accomplish important tasks. When a student feels a small, healthy amount of anxiety about an upcoming test, they study hard, the anxiety decreases, and the student performs well on the test. Healthy anxiety should decrease when you work to change the situation. Unhealthy anxiety might stay at high levels, even if the student studies hard and is completely prepared.

Anxiety can also alert you to dangerous situations. When walking down a dark street at night, your anxiety may be heightened because it encourages you to walk quickly and get to a safer location. Once you are in a safe location, the anxiety should fade away.

When is Anxiety Unhealthy?

While your body’s response to anxiety might make it easier to survive threats in nature, it is less helpful when you’re feeling anxiety due to an upcoming job interview or a difficult conversation. The physical response to anxiety can be frustrating when the cause of your anxiety is mental or emotional. If adrenaline and cortisol build up in your body and you’re unable to release them, the feeling of anxiety may not decrease, even if the cause of anxiety is gone.

Anxiety is also not helpful when it frequently alerts you of danger, but there is not an actual threat. If you frequently feel stressed about outcomes that are unlikely to occur, your anxiety is not serving you, and it is not healthy.

It’s common to feel anxiety about perceived threats that aren’t actually there if you’ve experienced something traumatic. Reminders of that experience will trigger anxiety in you because your body believes it is a warning sign of a dangerous situation.

For example, for survivors of gun violence, loud, sudden noises can trigger anxiety or panic because it reminds them of the sound of gunshots. Many other types of dangerous or difficult situations can leave you with leftover anxiety for years to come. If your anxiety is reminding you of a dangerous situation you previously experienced, it is not helping you stay safe in the present moment.

Anxiety is also harmful if it is driving you to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. If anxiety feels too difficult to manage on your own, it’s important to seek treatment so you can get the support you need.

How to Recognize Unhealthy Anxiety

It’s important to be able to notice when anxiety is unhealthy and causing you harm. Untreated anxiety can impact every aspect of your life. Luckily, there are many ways to treat anxiety. The first step is recognizing it.

Many people struggle to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. When anxiety is strong, it’s easy to feel like every perceived threat is real and dangerous. But the truth is, many people who experience frequent anxiety feel anxious about threats that are not actually real or are very unlikely.

You can look for physical symptoms to know when your body is responding with anxiety. Shortness of breath, a racing heart, sweating, and muscle tension are all indicators of anxiety. When you notice these symptoms, the first step is to identify the thing that is causing your anxiousness. Ask yourself if the threat is real and what the most likely outcome of the situation is. Be sure to remind yourself of all positive outcomes.

For students with test anxiety, their perceived threat is the test. Although the test is real and there is a real possibility of getting a low grade, their anxiety makes them focus on the negative possible outcomes while ignoring the potential positive outcomes, causing anxiety to increase to levels that are unhealthy. If you notice yourself focusing solely on negative potential outcomes and ignoring potential positive outcomes, you are likely experiencing unhealthy anxiety.

How to Manage Anxiety

Once you’ve learned to recognize when you’re feeling unhealthy anxiety, you can use strategies to decrease that anxiety. Many mild cases of anxiety can be managed through healthy living and at-home exercises.

Physical exercise is a great way to keep anxiety under control. The release of adrenaline and cortisol you feel when you’re anxious can get trapped in your body, causing continued anxiousness, even after the source of your anxiety is gone. Exercise helps use the extra energy and release the extra adrenaline and cortisol from your body. It’s a good idea to have a habit of daily exercise to manage anxiety symptoms.

Breathing exercises are also helpful for managing anxiety. When you feel anxious, try breathing in for four seconds and out for four seconds. These exercises can calm you and send a message to your body that you are not in danger.

Writing in a journal is another strategy for decreasing your anxiety. It allows you to process your anxious thoughts, identify sources of anxiety, and think through the potential positive outcomes.

When anxiety happens frequently, many people rely on professional mental healthcare providers for support. A healthcare provider can discuss options like medication, lifestyle changes, and therapy. If your anxiety feels too heavy to manage on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider to discuss your treatment options.

If you or someone you love has turned to substance abuse to manage anxiety, a treatment program that focuses on mental health disorders and substance abuse could be beneficial. Reach out to Jackson House to discuss treatment options.

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