Divorce, layoffs, threat of terrorism -- there's plenty of anxiety around
for everyone these days. And very often, the source is something we can't
change. How do you know when it's time to get help dealing with your
To better understand the underpinnings of anxiety -- and how to better cope
-- WebMD turned to two anxiety experts: Jerilyn Ross, MA, LICSW, director of
The Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Inc., and Linda Andrews, MD,
assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of
Medicine in Houston.
Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and you begin to tremble. These physical reactions to danger put your body on high alert. But if you're gripped with fear when there is little or no real danger, like when you're on a plane taxiing down a runway to take off, the real culprit may be anxiety.
"Anxiety is a world-class bluffer. It bluffs people into thinking they're in danger when they're really not," says Martin N. Seif, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and Greenwich, Conn., who co-founded...
The cold sweat of anxiety is that "fight or flight" response that kept our
early relatives safe from grizzly bears and other scary characters, says
Andrews. "That adrenaline rush still serves us well under certain
circumstances. Anxiety is a natural reaction to those very real stresses."
In today's world, "that reaction helps motivate us, prepares us for things
we have to face, and sometimes give us energy to take action when we need to,"
Big job interview is coming up, and it's got you in knots. So "you spend a
little more time getting dressed or rehearsing what you're going to say," Ross
says. "You've got an appointment with the divorce lawyer, so you do more
homework. That kind of anxiety can motivate you to do better. It helps you
But as we know too well, sometimes it doesn't take a specific threat -- only
the possibility of crisis -- to send humans into anxiety mode. "The difficulty
comes in learning to tone down that automatic response -- to think, 'How
serious is the danger? How likely is the threat?' "says Andrews.
"The thing about anxiety is, it can take on a life of its own," she adds.
"Everything becomes a potential crisis. The unthinkable has happened. So around
every corner, there's the next possible disaster."
The Anxiety Toll
When anxiety is taking a toll, your body knows it. You have trouble
sleeping, eating, and concentrating. You get headaches; your stomach is upset.
You might even have a panic attack -- the pounding heart, a feeling of
Anxiety may also feel like depression. "The two sometimes overlap," Ross
When anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with day-to-day
activities -- when it keeps you from going places, from doing things you need
to do -- that's when you need help, says Ross.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a bigger syndrome -- "like a worry machine
in your head," Ross says. "If it's not one thing, it's another. You're
procrastinating to the point that you're almost afraid to take a step. You're
so nervous about going to your child's school to talk to the teacher, you just
don't go -- you miss the appointment."
In the case of such overwhelming anxiety, "people are not making good
decisions," says Ross. "They're avoiding things, or they're unable to rise to
the occasion because the anxiety is too much. They're procrastinating because
they can't concentrate, can't stay focused. It's really interfering with their
day-to-day life. At that point, they may have a more serious anxiety problem
and need professional help."