We tend to think that everything around us needs to be falling apart in order to see a mental health professional. Or we might not realize that the seemingly helpful habits we’re engaging in are actually sabotaging us and leaving us stuck.
For example, you postpone an important, anxiety-provoking activity until after you’ve meditated and worked out. While both meditation and exercise are powerful practices for boosting our mood, managing stress, and enhancing our health, they can quickly turn into “safety behaviors that reinforce the belief that anxiety is best addressed by trying to control it,” according to Joel Minden, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Chico, Calif.
In other words, you prioritize “anxiety reduction over taking on meaningful challenges in life,” said Minden, author of the new book Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss: A Three-Step CBT Program to Help You Reduce Anxious Thoughts and Worry.
And that’s problematic.
Another problematic sign is excessive exercising or drinking. “Often, when people do things in excess, they are trying to ‘numb’ their symptoms,” said Erin Haugen, PhD, LP, CMPC, a clinical and sport psychologist in Grand Forks, N.D., who helps clients achieve their peak performance goals. “Doing things in excess serves to distract them from racing thoughts or uncomfortable physiological symptoms.”
Other signs to see a therapist, Minden said, include not leaving the house, declining social opportunities, putting off schoolwork, or calling in sick to work because of anxiety.
Haugen mentioned these additional signs:
- Disrupted sleep, which could be difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or having restless sleep. “Relatedly, fatigue often occurs due to poor sleep or muscle tension associated with ongoing anxiety.”
- Feeling “irritable over seemingly irrelevant things. Anxiety can often manifest as anger or irritability.”
- Not being able to get something out of your mind (i.e., ruminating)
- Difficulty focusing: “When someone experiences anxiety, they are often scanning their environment for threat, sometimes unknowingly,” which disrupts their attention.
“It’s important to seek professional help for anxiety because anxiety is treatable,” Haugen said. “Treatment is focused on helping you relate more effectively to the anxiety, think about things in a more helpful way, and help you engage in behaviors that help you live out your values.”
But seeking help for anxiety doesn’t mean anxiety is some terrible, awful thing to eliminate. Rather, an anxiety specialist will help you change your relationship to your anxiety.
According to Minden, “This might involve helping a client face important, but anxiety-provoking challenges—in the therapy office or in daily life—until ultimately the client learns through experience that anxiety is normal and harmless, that it tends to decline if you leave it alone, that it’s tolerable, and that the uncertainty of the future is also tolerable. ”
If you want to seek professional help, here’s how to do it:
- Search for a therapist on the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) websites, said Minden.
- Interview several therapists to find the right one for you, according to Haugen.
- Ask potential therapists about the strategies they use to help clients with anxiety; how they address unhelpful thinking and avoidant patterns of behavior; and how they know if a treatment is working, Minden said.
- “If you’re working with someone and don’t feel like you’re making progress, bring that up to your clinician. Chances are that some adjustments can be made to the treatment plan to more effectively meet your needs,” Haugen said.
- If changes have been made, and you still don’t feel like therapy is meeting your needs, find a new therapist, she said.
When you’re struggling with anxiety, you might feel a lot of shame. This is so embarrassing! What’s wrong with me?! Clearly, I’m weak and an idiot. Obviously, I’ll never achieve anything.
And that shame can stop you from seeking help.
However, know that you’re absolutely not alone in struggling with anxiety, and you’re actually in good company. As Haugen said, “Many high performing individuals, such as elite athletes and business executives, experience anxiety.” They just don’t appear to be anxious, but they’re “miserable on the inside. You can experience anxiety while reaching high goals or being in very visible positions. In fact, that’s most of the people who come to see me.”
If you’re experiencing bothersome symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek help—not because you’re broken or weird or weak, but because you deserve to live a fulfilling life according to your values.