Signs You Need To Do More To Treat Your Anxiety Even Though You're "Functioning"
Obviously you need to do whatever it takes to get your anxiety under control if it's so severe that it prevents you from functioning day to day. That is, you're so nervous and worried you can barely sleep or eat, you can't hold down a job or attend school, you're too scared to do everyday tasks like drive to the grocery store, you hardly ever leave the house, and so on.
It's also possible to have anxiety and technically be "functioning", but the quality of your life isn't nearly what it could be, and you've almost forgotten things could be better. There are a few reasons why you can fall into this trap:
- After a while you can get used to your status quo and lose sight of the fact that not everyone lives that way (e.g., after six months of your anxiety waking you up too early every morning, you learn to work around it. You stop thinking about the fact that you used to sleep through the night.)
- If your anxiety was way worse at one point, then your current life can seem great in comparison. You're so grateful for it that you don't think to aim even higher.
- If you've done a lot of work to get where you are, you may have unconsciously assumed you've done all you can, and this is the best things can get.
- Anxiety loves nothing more than a stagnant comfort zone. You're doing okay-ish now. Why rock the boat? What if you try to improve your situation, but make it worse?
This article will cover a bunch of signs that while you're coping with your anxiety and living a half-decent existence, you should seriously consider doing more to treat it. What do I mean by "doing more to treat it"? Well depending on what you've already tried, it could mean:
- Starting to see a therapist
- If you've gone to therapy here and there, beginning to see one regularly
- If you've been seeing the same therapist for a while, trying a new treatment approach
- Regularly attending an anxiety support group
- Doing a ton of research on ways to manage your anxiety on your own, and then making a serious effort to apply the advice (e.g., buying a self-study guide on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and religiously doing all the exercises and daily practices it suggests)
- Making big changes to your eating, exercise, or sleeping habits
- Trying medication (and I don't necessarily mean jumping straight into the most hardcore, side-effect heavy psychiatric drugs. Just trying something, even if it has a milder effect.)
- If you're already on a medication, adjusting the dose, switching to another, or adding a new one to the mix
- Trying one of the health supplements for anxiety that has some scientific evidence
Reasons to consider doing more to address your anxiety
None of these is meant to imply that the goal should be to never, ever feel anxious. Of course we all get nervous every now and then. However, if a lot of the points below apply to you, you're likely living with more anxiety than you need to, even if you are "functioning" with that amount of it. Hopefully going through this list can shake you out of your routine and make you realize you've been settling for too little.
You still feel a fair amount of anxiety throughout the week
Your anxiety may wax and wane throughout the week, or over the course of a day, but overall you feel more of it than you should. You can get through a day and do everything you need to do, but you're sometimes uncomfortably tense and preoccupied, and fighting to keep your nerves at bay. Maybe you routinely feel anxious most mornings, and beginning the workday is a struggle. Maybe you're nervous most evenings and always have trouble falling asleep. Maybe a sense of dread about the future randomly hits you, and you have to take breaks to do a bunch of breathing and writing exercises.
You can perform certain tasks, but you have to put up with an unreasonable amount of anxiety to do it
For example, you get really nervous at the thought of having to eat in a restaurant with other people. You can do it if you have to. In fact, once you've gotten through the first few bites your nerves always settle down. But whenever you know you have to go to a restaurant you're a mess for days beforehand. Or if it's not eating out, it's driving on the freeway, or your weekly meetings with your boss, or getting together with your friends for coffee. It's getting really old to constantly have to fret about one thing or another. You can get by, but you're wasting way too much time and mental energy.
You can keep your anxiety to a manageable level for the most part, but it requires a ton of work
For example, you get morning anxiety, but can manage it if you:
- Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up
- Eat a handful of trail mix
- Stretch for ten minutes
- Meditate for twenty minutes
- Write your worries down in a journal for ten minutes
- Go for a half-hour long run while listening to soothing music
And even then, you sometimes feel like this elaborate routine is barely keeping a lid on your nerves.
You still use a bunch of safety behaviors
You can meet your friends at a pub, but only if you use safety behaviors such as:
- You drive there on your own, so you have the flexibility to leave whenever you want if you get too nervous
- You carry a dose of anti-anxiety medication with you
- You don't have anything to eat, because sometimes feeling too full makes you panicky
You don't really, truly have a handle on your nerves. You can only deal with them if you've got an web of protective conditions in place.
You're constantly thinking about your anxiety
When you're anxious you're obviously thinking about it. When you're not nervous you're reflecting on how nice it is that you're calm, or wondering when you might get fearful again. You also spend a lot of time mulling over the nature of your anxiety, how it's affected you, how it's been trending over the past month, new things you could try to stop it, etc.
Your anxiety is unpredictable and you feel you're at its mercy
Your anxiety seems to come and go with a mind of its own. When it's gone you feel great and can get things done and enjoy life. You're full of courage and want to make big plans for how you'll tackle your anxiety in the future. You think you will go to that party on Saturday. You will plan that trip out of town.
When your anxiety is present you feel awful and have to claw your way through the day. You're full of anticipatory fear and want to avoid everything. There's no way you're going to that party. Your friends will be mad at you for canceling again, but it has to be done. Plan a trip out of town? Yeah, right. What were you thinking?
You feel overly happy and accomplished for completing simple, everyday tasks
After work you have to drive on the freeway to pick something up at a store. Then you have to buy groceries and cook a recipe you've never made before. The thought of those two big tasks is making you feel pretty anxious, but you get through it and are really pleased with yourself afterward. Your anxiety and sense of overwhelm is triggered so easily that completing commonplace, slightly stressful errands feels like a bigger deal than it should. You're so distracted by trying to get through the day you never consider you could be chasing larger goals.
The fear of a bad anxiety episode is always in the back of your mind, and you feel like it wouldn't take much to set one off
Your anxiety was really bad last year, when things were super busy at work and you were going through that breakup. There was that horrible week where you barely ate or slept, and did nothing but pace around and freak out about the future. You're managing much better now, but you fear it would just take a teensy bit too much stress to send you back over the edge. Your current level of functioning feels very tenuous.
You've actually had to restrict your life quite a bit to be "functional"
You live on your own. You're holding down a job. You see your friends and do some fun things around town every week. Day to day your life is pleasant enough. But you're also single and aren't trying to date. You don't travel. You don't try any new hobbies. You feel like attempting to do any of those things would stress you out too much and send the whole house of cards tumbling down. You're "functioning", but within a limited comfort zone.
Your life still isn't where you want it to be
To continue from the last point: Yes, things could be a lot worse. You could be living on the streets while having non-stop panic attacks. Right now you are functioning at a basic level, but you're not exactly chasing your dreams. You can do your current job, but are too nervous to try to transition to that new position you want. You stick with your current, semi-toxic group of friends because the thought of trying to meet new people makes you want to throw up. Maybe you'd like to volunteer somewhere, but become paralyzed when you start thinking about the process of signing up.
One or more aspects of your life are artificially easy. Your anxiety would be much worse otherwise
For example, you live with your parents and don't need to work, or you have an unusually cushy, low-stress job. Even then your anxiety is still a problem for you at times. If you suddenly had to pay your own rent or work a different position, you wouldn't be able to cope.
Your anxiety doesn't respond well to logic and reasoning
I think one difference between more-tolerable and more-problematic anxiety is how well you can talk yourself down from it with logic and reason. If you're mildly nervous about something harmless, then you can usually make yourself feel better by examining and questioning your thoughts and assumptions. Like if you're a tad anxious about a talk you have to give at work, you can remind yourself that your co-workers are nice and aren't rooting for you to fail.
When your anxiety is worse the logical questioning approach doesn't work so well. You can do it, and come up with lots of rational reasons why your anxiety is unwarranted. But you'll still feel anxious, even if you intellectually realize there's little to be afraid of. That or your mind will be going so fast that even if you can logically disarm one worry, ten more will pop up to take its place.
We all have the occasional bout of more-intense anxiety that we can't reason our way out of. But if most of your anxiety is like this, it's a sign you may want to do more to try to treat it, even if you can "function" in spite of it.
You're starting to use alcohol or drugs as a crutch
I'm not talking about having a full-blown addiction. Of course, that's a problem too, but a more clear cut one. I mean when you can "function" in certain situations, but you're beginning to take it for granted that you need to use a bit of booze or drugs to get through it. Like you can go to a party, but the first thing you do when you show up is head to the kitchen, make yourself a drink, and gulp it down. Or you smoke up before you walk over.
You may not even be drinking or using drugs that much or that often, but the fact that you're starting to use it as a crutch is a red flag that you're not coping with your anxiety as well as you could. It doesn't happen to everyone, but there's a risk your substance use could get worse and worse over time. You should consider looking into other options.
Your anxiety is getting better, but progress is really slow and inconsistent
For example, you get really nervous when you have to make conversation with someone you don't know. You're trying to gradually face that fear. However, you only practice talking to people once every few weeks, when the stars align and everything else in your life is relatively stress-free. Otherwise you feel like you've got too much on your plate, and practicing would make your anxiety boil over. Those occasional practice sessions have made you a touch more confident around people, but at this rate you feel like it will be years before the fear is fully behind you.
Your progress has stalled entirely
You're afraid of driving far from home. You've made some improvement in the past year; now you can visit all the nearby towns. But it's been six months and you haven't been able to go farther than that. It's just too scary. You're functioning well otherwise, but if you try to take that next step in facing your fears your nerves rear up and stop you.
It's been X years and you still haven't accomplished your bigger goals
Sometimes putting a time stamp on it really drives home how much your "functional" anxiety is costing you. For example, you're lonely and socially anxious and it's been years since you've had a group of friends. You've got a job. Your kids are fed. You're in good physical shape. But you've never been able to consistently work away on your social anxiety and increase your confidence to the point where you could build a social circle. You always figured things would fall into place one day, but it's been three years and it still hasn't happened. When is enough enough? When it is time to consider a new approach?
You want to give your current approach a little more time to work, and you've been saying that for a while
You do breathing exercises. You exercise. You meditate. You're getting better at mindfully accepting your worried thoughts. All that has made your anxiety a bit more manageable. You're still not anywhere close to your bigger goals, but why not give all those techniques more time? Again, when is enough enough? When do you conclude you've given a technique an honest shot and need to try something else? When do you decide you don't have five more years for your meditation practice to gradually build your courage?
Deep down you hope one day your anxiety will magically resolve itself
Your actual progress in overcoming your fears and anxiety is slow to completely halted. You don't have a plan to break through the plateau other than "Keep doing what I'm doing, and pray things work out." Whether it's unconscious or not, what you really hope is that your anxiety will just go away on its own if you wait around long enough. You have good and bad days. You think, "Well maybe I'll have a good stretch of good days, and my mood will stay that way." Unfortunately anxiety doesn't work like that. There's no process in the body that passively fixes anxiety with time, the way a skinned knee will heal on its own.
Things can be better
You don't need to stay stuck in that trap where you work to make your anxiety mostly tolerable, then stop there. It's very likely if your pursue other treatment options your life can be better than it is right now. I'm not naive. I'm not saying everyone with an anxiety disorder can completely cure their condition. But suffering less than you already are? Being able to pursue more of your goals? That's totally realistic.
I know the thought of doing more can be scary:
- You're afraid your efforts will backfire and make your anxiety worse. The status quo isn't the greatest, but it's acceptable. Why risk it?
- You're afraid that doing more to treat your anxiety will require you to do things that are uncomfortable, like properly trying to expose yourself to your fears. Right now your day to day anxiety is manageable. Your life is only so-so, but it's a trade you're willing to make. You don't want to experience a temporary increase in anxiety for the hope that your life will improve in the long run.
- The financial cost of pursuing more treatment options gives you pause. You don't have the money for therapy sessions or a bunch of supplements.
- You're worried about medication side effects.
- You've already had some bad experiences with therapy or medication. You don't want to chance going through that again.
- You're scared that if you try some new things and they don't work that it will leave you feeling too hopeless and discouraged.
- The thought of having a less-anxious life is scary in its own way. If your anxiety wasn't holding you back then you could finally make that career change or leave your marriage. Gulp. It can feel perversely cozy to live with limitations.
These are valid concerns. Therapy can be expensive. Medication can have unpleasant side effects. A treatment method may not work for you. However, you've got to weigh those possible outcomes against the potential consequences of not doing anything. What is the cost of not doing therapy? What are the potential side effects of not trying any medication? How down will you feel if another year goes by and you're still stuck in an anxious rut?
I'm not saying everyone reading this should sign up for months of counseling tomorrow. I'm not saying one option or another is the best for everybody. I know what a big, difficult decision it is to commit to a new round of treatment. I'm just asking you to think about whether your current level of functioning is really enough for you, and whether there's something you might try that could make your life better. Are you really where you want to be, or are you just used to how things are?