Your Health A-Z

When does anxiety become a mental health issue?

If you’re in a dangerous situation, anxiety is an important tool for self-preservation, ensuring you take action to protect yourself. But when your anxiety becomes a constant companion, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. Dr Melinda Lombard, a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Midstream, reveals what you need to know. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorders among the general population.

What’s more, research reveals that women are almost twice as likely as men to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Adults under the age of 35 are also at an increased risk, according to a research review published in Brain and Behavior.

But when does anxiety become a mental health condition?

Healthy anxiety vs. mental health disorder

Anxiety is a healthy emotion until it starts disrupting your everyday life. “Anxiety is an emotion that can be adaptive when trying to prevent fear-provoking circumstances from occurring,” explains Dr Lombard. “Anxiety becomes toxic when it interferes with social and occupational functioning – this is then an anxiety disorder.”

Anxiety disorder, attack, or stress?

Types of anxiety disorders

According to Dr Lombard, there are a number of different types of anxiety disorders including:

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
See below.

Panic disorder
Symptoms include sudden and repeated episodes of fear — called panic attacks — that last several minutes or more. During a panic attack, people may feel that they can’t breathe or that they’re having a heart attack.

Are you having panic attacks?

Social phobia
This is characterised by an extended period of excessive worry before a social event. Sufferers are often embarrassed, self-conscious, afraid of being judged and find it hard to talk to others.

Separation anxiety disorder
Not just applicable to children, this disorder strikes when people have fears about being parted from people to whom they’re attached.

Specific phobia
An intense fear of, or a feeling of intense anxiety about, specific types of objects or situations, for example flying, blood, etc.

Agoraphobia
A fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or where help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong. In severe cases, people may be too afraid to ever leave their houses.

Anxiety due to substance use
Generalised anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, or phobia symptoms caused by the effects of psychoactive substances during intoxication or during withdrawal.

“These disorders share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioural disturbances,” explains Dr Lombard. Fatigue, worry and tension are all common to most anxiety disorders. “Other symptoms vary depending on the specific anxiety disorder.”

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

“The most common anxiety disorder is GAD,” says Dr Lombard. “This disorder is characterised by excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events and activities. Worrying is difficult to control.”

With GAD, anxiety and worry are associated with at least three of the following six symptoms occurring on most days for at least six months:

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  2. Being easily fatigued
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  4. Irritability
  5. Muscle tension
  6. Sleep disturbance

When to get help

Anxiety disorders are one of the most treatable mental health problems, yet many don’t get the help they need. If symptoms recur for over six months and/or worsen, ask your GP for advice or a referral to a mental health professional. “A person should seek help if their anxiety symptoms interfere with their daily functioning,” says Dr Lombard.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.