Is It Normal Anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder?

How Can I Tell the Difference?

Woman looking anxious France
"Anxiety attacks" are defined in many different ways from intense worry to overwhelming panic. BSIP/UIG/Getty

Defining Anxiety

According to Kaplan and Sadock, anxiety is “a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension, often accompanied by autonomic symptoms such as a headache, perspiration, palpitations, tightness in the chest, mild stomach discomfort, and restlessness, as indicated by an inability to sit or stand still for long.”

Virtually every human can relate to these symptoms because everyone has experienced anxiety at one time or another.

Anxiety is a normal human experience. In fact, it is considered a beneficial response in certain dangerous situations that trigger the anxiety-laden fight-or-flight stress response.

Anxiety Can be Normal and Beneficial

There are an infinite number of human experiences that cause normal anxiety. Life offers us the experience of many anxiety-provoking “firsts” -- a first date, the first day of school, the first time away from home. As we journey through life, there are many important life events, both good and bad, that cause varying amounts of anxiety. These events can include things such as, taking a school exam, getting married, becoming a parent, getting divorced, changing jobs, coping with illness and many others.

The discomfort anxiety brings in all of these situations is considered normal and even beneficial. Anxiety about an upcoming test may cause you to work harder in preparing for the exam.

The anxiety you feel when walking through a dark and deserted parking lot to your car will cause you to be alert and cautious of your surroundings, or better yet, get an escort to your vehicle.

Anxiety Can be a Problem

While it’s pretty clear to see that anxiety is normal and even beneficial, for many people it becomes a problem.

The main difference between normal anxiety and problem anxiety is of the source and the intensity of the experience.

Normal anxiety is intermittent and is expected based on certain events or situations. Problem anxiety, on the other hand, tends to be chronic, irrational and interferes with many life functions. Avoidance behavior, incessant worry and concentration and memory problems may all stem from problem anxiety. These symptoms may be so intense that they cause family, work and social difficulties.

The components of problem anxiety include the physical responses to the anxiety (such as palpitations and stomach upset), distorted thoughts that become a source of excessive worry and behavioral changes affecting the usual way one lives life and interacts with others. Left unchecked, problem anxiety may lead to an anxiety disorder.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you believe your anxiety is a problem, it is important to talk to your doctor. Excessive anxiety can be caused by a number of medical and psychological conditions.

Problem anxiety has also been indicated in a variety of physical illnesses, such as heart disease, stomach problems, and pain. But, the best reason to talk to your doctor: Anxiety is easily controllable, and its complications are easily avoidable with treatment.


Kaplan MD, Harold I. and Sadock MD, Benjamin J. "Synopsis of Psychiatry, Eighth Edition" 1998 Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

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