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Ask Dr. Zoe – Anxiety: What is Normal, When Do I Seek Help?

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‘Potential Worry-Wart’ Asked:

 What is “normal” anxiety and what crosses over into clinical?

In my mid-20s, I experienced panic attacks and a couple years of moderate to severe anxiety and depression. Before then, I did not experience any of those things and believe I had “normal” mental health. There were life circumstances that went into play with the panic, anxiety, and depression, and I did go on medication during that season. I am now off of medication, but still in counseling and group therapy. I feel as though I am well-balanced again, however, there are times when I do feel stress, worry, and feeling down and out. I know that everyone experiences those feelings at times, and being aware of them helps me process the deeper issues and deal with them in a way that I’ve learned to be healthy. However, there are moments when I worry that maybe I’m not experiencing “normal” emotions and that perhaps there’s something “more” wrong…I think this mostly stems from the fear of falling back into that dark place. Can you give some tips for knowing what feelings of worry, anxiety, and sadness are “normal” and what should be considered more “clinical”—for which you should seek further help?

Dr. Zoe Answered:

Everyone wonders from time to time if they are “normal.” I don’t think that term is helpful in any way. Anytime I want to use it, I always replace it with “healthy.” So, to answer your questions, yes, it is “healthy” to have feelings that vacillate from time to time. It is healthy to experience all of your feelings.

Things can become unhealthy when one feeling dominates your body to the extent that it keeps you from being able to focus or get stuff done. You’ve felt that before and you are scared you may get to that place again. Remember that you have grown and changed and you have tools and people in place that you didn’t have before and that puts you a few steps ahead of depression and anxiety if they should ever start to creep up again.

Here is what you want to look for as the difference between normal dealing with life stuff and when you should seek help for anxiety or depression:

1. How intense is it? Are your feelings so strong that you feel like you can’t deal with or tolerate them? If they feel like they hit you like a wave and knock you over and you can’t get up, you need to seek help. If they feel like they hit you sometimes, but you get back up and in the water again, you are handling them in a healthy way.

2. How long does it last? If you are stressed and anxious because you have a life-changing job interview in a few days, but after the interview happens, you are back to “normal” (there’s that word), then that is a healthy response. If you continue to feel that same level of stress with no apparent reason, it’s time to get it checked out.

It is “healthy” to have feelings that vacillate from time to time. It is healthy to experience all of your feelings.

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3. Does the feeling fit the event? If you are boo-hooing like your dog died because you dropped a piece of ice on the floor, something else is going on and you may need to seek help. If you are sad and crying because an important relationship ended, this is grief and it looks a lot like depression, but it is a healthy response that will get better over time. Don’t freak. Just give yourself some time.

4. How are you functioning? If you are avoiding things because you know they may trigger you and make you feel a certain way, if you are not taking care of business and getting stuff done because it makes you anxious or life just feels like a little too much, then it’s time to get some intervention. If you are having feelings and still functioning, congratulations—you’re doing just fine.

It basically all boils down to how much your feelings and mood are affecting your day to day functioning. Just don’t let the fear of your anxiety or depression keep you from living your life now. Know that if it does creep up, you’ll take care of it and it will be okay. For now, just enjoy the mental health that you have!

You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace.

Dr. Zoe

For more on healthy emotions, don’t miss Dr. Zoe on This Grit and Grace Life: How to Feel Your Emotions in a Healthy Way With Dr. Zoe Shaw – 075!

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Dr. Zoe is a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert who recently jumped out of a perfectly good plane just for the experience.

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