Can Anxiety Disorder Lead To Serious Mental Illness

Written by Jim Folk
Last updated September 18, 2021

Video Transcript

Can anxiety disorder lead to serious mental illness, like schizophrenia or psychosis, and if not, how do I stop worrying about it?

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As for your first question, fear of developing a serious mental illness is a common core fear among anxiety disorder sufferers. We hear this fear often in our work with Recovery Support members and therapy clients.

This fear often stems from core fears, such as loss of control, loss of independence, and the fear that something bad could happen, such as an irreversible medical or mental health problem, that ruins your life and there’s nothing you can do about it, to name a few.

To answer your first question, in the over 30 years we’ve worked with Recovery Support members and therapy clients, we’ve not seen one instance where anxiety disorder turned into a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or psychosis.

We’ve seen a few instances where anxious people were later diagnosed with a serious mental illness, but that was because that serious mental illness pre-existed anxiety disorder and caused anxiety as a symptom. However, this scenario is rare.

Furthermore, anxiety disorder is caused by unhealthy behavior and not by biological, chemical, or genetic reasons. Unhealthy behavior can be replaced with healthy behavior, which eliminates issues with anxiety.

This is not to say that anxiety disorder isn’t serious and can’t cause significant hardship and lifestyle impairment, because it can.

But its "seriousness" is due to the impact anxiety disorder can have on a person's lifestyle and physical health rather than the cause of anxiety disorder.

Therefore, in our opinion, there is no way for anxiety itself to lead to the development of a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or psychosis.

Yes, some anxious people can have a psychotic episode from high degree anxiety or hyperstimulation, such as where they experience reality differently, as in hearing voices or seeing things that don’t exist. But these episodes are symptoms of anxiety and hyperstimulation that end quickly as the degree of anxiety and hyperstimulation diminish.

I (Jim Folk) had a few psychotic episodes myself when I was struggling with anxiety disorder. While unsettling at the time, they disappeared as I overcame anxiety disorder, and I’ve not had any since.

Due to the power of stress hormones and how they can affect the brain, temporary psychotic episodes are common for anxiety sufferers. But this isn’t classified as psychosis, a medical term used to describe the ongoing “break from reality” often associated with true psychosis.

Furthermore, some people have multiple mental health conditions where anxiety disorder is one. This, again, is different because serious mental health issues can create issues with anxiety. But it doesn’t suggest anxiety disorder can lead to the development of serious mental health issues.

Again, anxiety disorder remains having issues with anxiety, and that’s all. Therefore, there is no risk of developing a serious mental health issue from anxiety.

To answer your second question, since there isn’t any risk, there is no reason to worry about it.

Due to great imaginations, anxious people can worry about anything. But we have to be realistic about what is possible and what is likely. Worrying about the improbable is a waste of time, energy, and mental resources.

There is a vast difference between what is possible and what is likely. Worrying about the improbable is wasting time and energy.

Since worry is a self-affliction, no one can stop you from worrying but you. However, you can contain unhealthy worry with help and practice. Many of us have done this work.

So, the next time you notice yourself worrying about anxiety leading to the development of a serious mental illness, remind yourself that it doesn’t, and therefore, you aren’t in any danger.

As you do this over time, you’ll forget about it as the fear becomes extinguished.

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Recovery Support members can learn more about containment and extinguishing fear in chapters 6 and 14.

If you continue to struggle with this type of fear, working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist can help you extinguish it.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome problematic anxiety, established fears, and what can seem like out-of-control worry.

Doing the right work now can set you free from years of lifestyle impairment due to unresolved anxiety issues. There is good help available to help you make the transition out of anxiety disorder and into normal mental health living.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our Anxiety Frequent Questions archive.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Can Anxiety Disorder Lead To A Serious Mental Illness Like Schizophrenia Or Psychosis?