High Level Anxiety: Is It Really A Mental Health Problem?

High level anxiety looks a bit like a lowly brag, doesn’t it? This implies that you keep it together (thriving, even!) No matter how anxious and overwhelmed you may be. But despite the popularity of the term in conversations and Google searches, it is not actually recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a mental health problem. So what do we mean when we talk about high level anxiety and what should we do about it? This anxious but very functional health reporter took to a few mental health professionals to find out how they define high level anxiety and what you need to know if that term speaks to you.

What is high level anxiety?

You won’t find high-level anxiety in the DSM-5, but that doesn’t mean the experts aren’t familiar with the concept. It’s a term that’s often used along with other traits that describe similar experiences but aren’t formal mental health diagnoses either, like perfectionism, workaholic, and type A personality.

The term “high level” more than likely refers to subclinical anxiety, or anxiety that doesn’t quite meet the criteria for a formal anxiety disorder, says licensed psychologist Josh Spitalnick, Ph.D. , CEO of Anxiety Specialists of Atlanta. This is because some kind of disruption to your functioning (whether it’s disrupting your job, school, social life, relationships, etc.) is a key criteria when it comes to be diagnosed with a mental health problem. For example, the diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder include this point: “Anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause distress or clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. “

Chances are, if you identify with the term high level anxiety, you probably don’t feel like your anxiety is holding you back in these main ways. So, what are you going through then?

“When I say subclinical, what I mean is someone is experiencing the cognitive, emotional and physiological aspects of anxiety,” says Dr. Spitalnick. This can include things like restlessness, irritability, trouble sleeping, heartbeat, unwanted thoughts, and many other uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety that are not always noticeable by those around you. But what’s missing is the behavioral element: how these symptoms disrupt your day-to-day life.

“They don’t necessarily collapse under pressure, as you can imagine the extreme of any diagnosis,” licensed psychologist Alicia Hodge, Psy.D. told SELF. “These people see a lot of productivity or activity. , but at the end of the day, they are still very active physically – they have a lot of worry, brooding, and worry. “

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So when is high level anxiety a problem?

It’s no secret that being a perfectionist, multitasking, and generally shitty person is rewarded and empowered in many aspects of our society. You are definitely not alone if you feel like your tiredness, frustration, and crushing feelings are just a part of being a person today, especially if you have a lot of going on. So when does being stressed out by your endless to-do list cross the line into high-level anxiety territory?

“The difference between the motivated person who does not have high-level anxiety and the motivated person who does suffer from it are the symptoms of anxiety,” therapist and coach Aisha Shabazz, LCSW, tells SELF. “Are you restless during the day? Are you able to have a balanced balance and a natural sleep pattern? Do you have gastrointestinal symptoms related to being nervous, overwhelmed, anxious, stressed? Essentially, if you are experiencing mental or physical symptoms of anxiety, this is something worth considering.

“The way I conceptualize high level anxiety is that you can take on more than most people. But just because you can lift a big boulder doesn’t mean it’s not heavy,” Shabazz explains. .

Yet most people, whether they realize it or not, seem to adhere to the criteria set out in the DSM: they don’t seek help until their symptoms lead to real consequences in their daily lives, such as no. -respect of deadlines or special events. In fact, many high achievers may not treat their symptoms until they notice a drop in performance or productivity, even though these symptoms include intense fear, constant worry, and the inevitable physiological signs of the disease. stress.

“If the problem doesn’t show up behaviorally, some people would say, ‘I don’t have a problem,’ says Dr. Spitalnick, who notes that very few adults enter his practice with high anxiety. level ; instead, he tends to see them once this operation takes a hit. On the flip side, he sees a lot of kids, teens, and college students whose parents fear their stressed child is headed for burnout, despite their perfect attendance and GPA.

Burnout is another term you hear often associated with high-level anxiety, both of which allude to our culture’s desire to describe an emotionally and physically charged experience in a more understandable and less pathological way than it is. you might find in the DSM.

“I think burnout has become a lot more discussed because it’s basically a manifestation of emotional and well-being issues, but it’s related to work,” says Dr Hodge. “Since we’re very focused in our society on work and productivity, it’s kind of become a catch-all term for: it’s not sustainable, this pace is ridiculous, and I can’t function like that. . “

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