What is it?
If you’ve ever felt extremely nervous about an upcoming test, or got in a car and felt uneasy about the safety of driving, you’ve felt worried. We all worry at different points in our lives and for different reasons. Usually, the thoughts are temporary or we can divert our attention to something else.
But, if those thoughts stick around and it's hard to think about anything else, worry can become consuming. Focusing on the present is challenging when you’re constantly thinking about the “what-ifs” in the future.
For some folks, worry can lead to feelings of fear or impending doom, accompanied often by physical symptoms, like trouble breathing or body tension. This is called panic. Some people experience sudden and intense “attacks” of panic, that can often have no clear trigger. This can feel scary, especially if you’ve never felt that way before and are feeling it for the first time.
Not all worry is a diagnosable mental health condition. If worry becomes difficult to control and you have trouble relaxing, or you experience recurrent episodes of panic, it’s possible you might be experiencing an anxiety disorder. This is a category of mental health condition that includes panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. If that’s the case, talk to a mental health professional about it further.
What's causing it?
Our body was evolutionarily designed to predict threats and run from a threat, which is exactly what worry and anxiety tell us. If we learn, for example, that a bear will eat us, we biologically prepare to run from a bear if we see one (in how we breathe, and how our muscles tense up, for example).
It makes sense why we evolved these responses as a way to protect us and help us survive. Worry and anxiety are not just normal for all of us–it’s often necessary.
That being said, sometimes our internal detectors get out of whack and we perceive more threats (or potential threats) than there actually are. We might have difficulty stopping ourselves from worrying, and start physically preparing to protect ourselves and run.
Depending on how much those feelings interfere with our lives, we might be just experiencing different levels of anxiety, from worry to panic. Those feelings are often temporary and can sometimes be addressed, in part, by trying to identify the source of the concern.
Some common sources of worry, anxiety and panic include:
- Stressful work environments
- Money issues
- Relationship concerns
- Large crowds
- Chronic illness
Other factors may also influence our detector, leading to increases in anxiety. These factors include the food we eat and diet we have, our lifestyle habits and our genetics. For example, lack of sleep or drinking a lot of caffeine can heighten anxiety. Anxiety can also be hereditary, meaning it was inherited from a parent or has been passed down for generations. Knowing what these feelings are and where they come from can be a great first step to feeling better and dealing with the long-term.
Related emotions, moods and life challenges
Worry and panic are common responses to several different emotions and life events.
When your level of worry and panic becomes unmanageable, it might be a sign you’re grappling with a larger mental health condition.
How should I deal with it?
Understanding that you are experiencing worry, anxiety or panic and learning ways to focus less on the future and more on the present can be a helpful step in decreasing your mental and physical responses.
This is hard to do in the moment and takes practice: It might be something as small as taking a few minutes out of the day to focus on how you’re breathing, learning to be mindful of your surroundings and safety and practicing being more grounded.
Taking small steps to be kind to yourself by learning to both self-soothe and interrupt negative thought cycles can pay huge dividends in your quality of life.
Things to try
While many different things can cause worry and panic, and worry and panic are different feelings, there are many proven approaches to understanding yourself more and feeling better.
What can I do now?
Struggling with an overwhelming sense of worry or panic can make it hard to know what’s going on with you, where it’s coming from, if you need to get help and what kind of help you might need. It’s important to remember that there are healthy ways to manage or even alleviate your feelings.
What ultimately works for you might take some time and patience to find, but it’s out there. Seek resources, practice mindfulness, and be kind to yourself while you seek a path forward.
WebsiteSeize the AwkwardStarting a conversation about mental health does not need to be uncomfortable, and it can make all the difference. Check out these resources to learn how to support a friend – or get help for yourself.
Online interactive tool(s)Where to get help | Mental Health AmericaMental Health America offers a "Where to Get Help" interactive tool to recommend locating mental health support resources based on your needs.
Helpline | Text line | Online Live ChatNAMI HelpLine | National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)During this difficult time, the NAMI HelpLine is here for you. HelpLine volunteers are working to answer questions, offer support and provide practical next steps. The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. Call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), text "HelpLine" to 62640 or email us at email@example.com.