May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this week dean of the University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences Dr. Rick Streiffer is highlighting anxiety.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people in the U.S. will develop some kind of temporary or permanent mental health condition in their lifetime.
Social work and mental health specialist Bob McKinney said even though it feels harmful, not all anxiety is bad.
“Anxiety is a perfectly normal part of life,” McKinney said. “It’s the way our bodies react to stress and stressful situations. Anxiety can kind of hone your focus into the task at hand.”
But there’s a big difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder, McKinney said. Most people stress out when there’s a big test coming up or a performance review at work.
But when that anxiety is pervasive or keeps someone from participating in everyday life, it can quickly become harmful. If you’ve been feeling anxious for six months or more, McKinney said, it’s time to see a doctor.
“If the feelings of anxiety cause you to avoid situations to a degree that would be abnormal — for example, driving 20 miles out of your way to work every day because you don’t want to go over a bridge — that might rise to the level of an anxiety diagnoses,” McKinney said.
Other symptoms include sleep disruption, fatigue, muscle tension, changes in mood, difficulty concentrating and irritability. If it’s not treated, symptoms can worsen.
Anxiety is a manageable condition in most people and is treated by talk therapy and/or medication. But there are other things you can do to cut down on your stress. Yoga and meditation go a long way toward calming the mind.
“Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnoses in the United States affecting just short of 20 percent of the population — about 40 million people,” McKinney said. “Only about a third of those actually seek treatment.”
Some people may not even be aware of what their anxiety stems from, McKinney said. And some just aren’t willing to talk about it. That’s why talk therapy is one of the best ways to treat anxiety.
The first step to being treated is talking to your physician. If your employer has an employee assistance program, that’s another avenue for getting help — often at a low cost or even free.
University Medical Center offers mental health treatment open to the community.