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Is Anxiety a Mental Illness? (Mental Illness Awareness Week)

October 10, 2019 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

You may have learned somewhere that anxiety is a mental illness. Anxiety is so much a part of the human condition that almost every one of us across the globe experiences it sometimes. Does this mean that the entire world has a mental illness? For part of Mental Illness Awareness Week, let's explore whether anxiety is a mental illness. 

Understand Anxiety for Mental Illness Awareness Week

The not-so-simple answer to the question about the status of anxiety as a mental illness is: It depends. Anxiety can indeed be a diagnosable mental illness and thus categorized as an anxiety disorder. It can also be an experience that affects mental health and wellbeing but isn't quite a mental illness. 

The best way to sort out what, exactly, you're dealing with is to see either your primary care provider or a mental health professional like a psychiatrist (often, an appointment with a psychiatrist requires a referral from a primary doctor), psychologist, or therapist/counselor. He or she will talk with you to learn about your symptoms and their severity. Your healthcare provider will consider with you how much anxiety is negatively affecting your life to determine whether your anxiety is a mental illness or if it's "ordinary" anxiety. 

What Is Ordinary Anxiety?

Anxiety is that frustrating, irritating, downright miserable experience of thinking, feeling, and even behaving (avoidance is a common behavior driven by anxiety). Some examples include:

  • Stress-related anxiety, such as worries and fears associated with a certain situation 
  • Existential anxiety, which is, simplified, anxiety about existing and life in general
  • Perfectionism and performance anxiety, which involves the pressure to be good enough or better
  • Relationship anxiety, involving romantic relationships, parenting, friendships, and more

There's nothing "ordinary" about it. Anxiety is outside of a person's regular thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and it is disruptive to life and wellbeing. This type of anxiety, while often part of an anxiety disorder, usually isn't severe or specific enough to be diagnosed on its own as an anxiety disorder. There are very specific criteria for anxiety disorders. 

When Anxiety Is a Mental Illness: Anxiety Disorders

When the above anxieties and other worries become so severe that they interfere in someone's ability to complete daily tasks, a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder may be warranted. While each disorder has its own criteria, generally, anxiety must be present nearly every day for at least six months.

Anxiety disorders include:

Anxiety is miserable no matter how you experience it. Sometimes, when the symptoms are severe, long-lasting, and specific, anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder and is a mental illness. Regardless of how severe or mild your anxiety is, you can treat it and manage it. Whether or not anxiety is a mental illness isn't as important as the fact that you can reduce it and live well in spite of it. If you feel that you may have an anxiety disorder, seeking help from your doctor or mental health professional can help you get back on track.

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2019, October 10). Is Anxiety a Mental Illness? (Mental Illness Awareness Week), HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, October 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2019/10/is-anxiety-a-mental-illness-mental-illness-awareness-week



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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