Is It Normal Anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder?

How Can You Tell the Difference?

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

Anxiety is a general, unpleasant feeling of apprehension. You feel restless and you may have physical reactions such as a headache, sweating, palpitations, chest tightness, and upset stomach. When is anxiety normal and when is it an anxiety disorder?

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 and the physical symptoms are coming from your autonomic nervous system 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," such as 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 between 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.

When anxiety progresses to being a disorder, the definition for generalized anxiety disorder is "The presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive," according to the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" published by the American Psychiatric Association.

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 is that anxiety is controllable, and its complications are avoidable with treatment.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth edition)." Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Kaplan MD, Harold I. and Sadock MD, Benjamin J. "Synopsis of Psychiatry, Eleventh Edition" 2014 Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

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