Is Anxiety a Disease?
Whether or not anxiety is a disease is an important question, and I want to give you as useful an answer as possible.
It’s also a difficult question, because there’s no one right answer.
Whatever response an expert gives you—mine included—will be a reflection of their own belief system and the way they work with anxiety.
It’s up to you to compare their responses to your own life, your own needs, and your own experience, and decide for yourself. Find an answer that feels empowering to you. If you firmly believe that your anxiety is an illness, and this belief works for you – good! Hold onto it.
Before giving you my response as to whether or not anxiety is a disease, I want to encourage you to check in with yourself as to why you’re asking this question.
- Maybe you’re worried that something is wrong with you.
- Maybe you’ve having thoughts that you’re going crazy.
- Maybe you want to know what’s causing this much suffering.
- Maybe you want to know that it’s the disease’s fault you’re anxious, not yours.
- Maybe you’re tired of anxiety hurting your relationships.
- Maybe you just want relief.
Whatever it is, you’re asking this question for a reason, and it’s important to honor it.
Anxiety FEELS like a disease
I want to also be clear that I know firsthand the suffering that come with anxiety. I know the fatigue, the nausea, the worry. I know the unexplainable terror that’s there upon waking and still there at night.
It’s hard to have such intense anxiety symptoms and NOT think that you have an illness. At its most extreme, anxiety feels like a disease. It’s hard to believe you could suffer that much and not have something wrong with you.
That being said, I don’t see anxiety as a disease. Here’s why.
Why I don’t view anxiety as a disease
In my opinion, calling anxiety a disease limits your ability to see anxiety in its many forms and purposes. It collapses anxiety into a medical condition to be treated, and strengthens the avoidance impulse that is at the heart of anxiety disorders. It makes us want to get rid of the anxiety, and blinds us from everything helpful or useful that the anxiety may be trying to communicate or bring into our lives.
Instead of seeing anxiety as a disease, I see it as an experience.
Anxiety is an experience with many aspects (bio-psycho-social-cultural-spiritual), each being adaptive or maladaptive (helpful or unhelpful). Anxiety is like a diamond with many faces; if you focus on just one of them you miss the bigger picture.
Seeing anxiety this way gives you space to relate to your experience. It preserves curiosity in what is happening for you at this given time in your life, rather than casting a judgment on your experience as disordered and pathological.
How does it help to see anxiety as an experience, not a disease?
If you see anxiety as a problem, you’re more likely to try to get rid of it. This is the avoidance impulse at work, and we know that it makes anxiety worse. As is often said, “What you resist, persists.” The best way to hold onto your anxiety is to urgently try and get rid of it.
On the other hand, if you see anxiety as an experience, you’re better positioned to respond to it effectively, using all of the approaches we know to decrease suffering and increase flexibility (acceptance, exposure, mindfulness, lifestyle change, etc.).
Furthermore, you’re open to what your anxiety has to offer you. This is anxiety’s adaptive potential – the baby in the bathwater, so to speak – that gets lost when anxiety is seen strictly as a disease.
What anxiety can offer
How anxiety can help you is a massive topic, and nowhere near enough has been said about it.
Here are a few examples of how anxiety can help you in meaningful ways.
- Anxiety can point to your growth edges. For example, anxiety can show you parts of yourself where you would do well to become more courageous, accepting, or flexible.
- Anxiety can signal areas of your life needing attention, such as places in which you’re acting against your values or not living up to your passions, dreams, or aspirations. (Existential anxiety can be a sign that you’ve reneged on your dreams, and it may be calling for you to right this in some way.)
- Anxiety can point to imbalances in your day to day life, such as when you’re over committed and need to re-allocate your time.
- Anxiety can draw your attention to a conflict you’ve avoided or tried to bury. Though difficult at first, tending to this conflict could bring you resolution, relief, and growth. (“It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually”, wrote M. Scott Peck.)
This is only a small list of the ways that anxiety can help you in your life.
What about anxiety disorders?
While I don’t believe that anxiety is a disease, I do believe that people can have anxiety disorders. What’s the difference?
When I hear “anxiety disorder”, I picture someone whose relationship with anxiety is disordered.
The person doesn’t have an illness, in the way that someone has diabetes or Lyme disease.
What they have is a dysfunctional relationship to their anxiety, usually grounded in avoidance of their thoughts, feelings, or sensations, and of feared situations. This dysfunctional relationship can create immense suffering in their life, to the point of causing breakdown. This person needs support in building a new relationship to their anxiety, one that brings them relief and helps them tap into anxiety’s life-enhancing potential.
As Robert Gerzon says:
“Because it is a natural—even sacred—part of life, we need to learn how to become anxious about the right things in the right way”.
The assumption here—which I share—is that there can be (note: “can”, not “is”) a wisdom to anxiety. This is a wisdom beyond that of your conscious ego, which is caught up in the commotion of day-to-day life.
Furthermore, it’s this wisdom that you risk losing if you see your anxiety as an illness or disease.
Whether or not you see anxiety as a disease or illness is a deeply personal choice. You can make arguments for all sides. In the end, it’s a matter of which idea best serves you at this time in your life.
If you see anxiety as a disease or illness, you may obscure the aspect of anxiety that is adaptive and useful in your life.
I believe that even though anxiety feels like an illness, it is an experience that can also hold a wisdom with which we’re not normally in touch. This wisdom should be honored, integrated, and acted upon in our lives.
Learning to relate to your anxiety in a healthy way is extremely rewarding. Not only can it reduce your suffering, but it can also connect you to an inner wisdom that is invaluable for creating the life you want for yourself.