The Difference Between Anxiety and An Anxiety Disorder


Everyone experiences anxiety in response to stressful situations such as relationship conflicts, college exams, work deadlines, getting married, or getting divorced.

To a certain extent, anxiety is motivating. It prompts us to resolve conflict, study for tests, complete work projects, and take care of pleasant or unpleasant business to relieve the anxious feelings. Sometimes anxiety alerts us to danger and heightens our vigilance.

Anxiety can also, when excessive, cause debilitating symptoms that prevent us from functioning well. How do you know whether your anxiety is uncomfortable but within normal limits, or if you have symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety or Anxiety Disorder?

Normal anxiety is typically felt in response to a specific stressor. An upcoming piano recital, job interview, a date with someone new, or an argument with a friend can jangle our nerves. If the stressor involves something or someone very important to us the anxiety is likely to be stronger.

People with excessive anxiety, or an anxiety disorder, tend to be anxious most of the time, or always. They may acknowledge specific stressors, but they tend to feel anxious even when obvious stressors are absent. Everyday responsibilities (e.g., paying a bill, making the bed, getting groceries) are overwhelming and intensify the anxiety, so getting through each day can be an exhausting struggle.

Since an anxiety disorder disrupts all aspects of life, a common way of coping is to avoid the normal and necessary activities that seem to feed the anxiety. Individuals often procrastinate tasks, stop attending classes, miss days of work, or avoid socializing to find relief.

While normal anxiety is lasts for hours or days - intense anxiety may go on for weeks or months. Those with anxiety disorders have a response to stressors that is “over the top,” or disproportionate to the stress.

For instance, before a class or work presentation, most people will feel nervous and edgy a few hours or days beforehand. Someone with excessive anxiety will fret about the presentation for weeks ahead of time, and maybe after giving the presentation as well. Their minds may stew over the project constantly causing sleep problems, affecting eating habits, and interfering with other work or school responsibilities. Plus, the anxiety will not be confined to the presentation, but simultaneously extend to even the most mundane aspects of their life.

Finally, unlike normal anxiety, excessive anxiety is often accompanied by a slew of other troublesome symptoms such as:

    dizziness, light-headedness, headaches
    sweating, heart pounding, trembling
    nausea, intestinal cramps
    feeling you can’t breathe or catch your breath
    trouble concentrating or focusing
    repetitive negative thoughts, racing thoughts

Fortunately, anxiety is one of the more treatable psychological conditions. If you are struggling with excessive anxiety, or think you might be, talk to a school counselor or mental health professional.

Photo credit: Holly Lay / flickr


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