Normal Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder: What is the Difference?

Everyone feels some level of anxiety at some point. Whether delivering a presentation to a large group of peers or interviewing for a new job, short-term nervousness and discomfort are inevitable. However, for an individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder, these feelings are so severe and overwhelming that they completely envelop him and make daily life a struggle.

Still, many individuals assume that those with anxiety disorders are merely exaggerating their symptoms and some refuse to recognize the disorder altogether. This attitude stems from the fact that not everyone understands what distinguishes general anxiety from an anxiety disorder. While many of the symptoms are similar, the severity of them is entirely different.

An anxiety is generally characterized by queasiness or “butterflies” in the stomach, restlessness, irritability, sweaty palms, fidgeting, inability to focus, and heart flutters or palpitations. However, general anxiety is always brought on by a specific event or situation and the symptoms end at some point during or immediately following their cause. Anxiety, in its traditional form, is a great motivator. It helps individuals get things done. Anxiety compels individuals to study for an upcoming exam so that they do not fail their course, practice for a performance to prevent ill reviews or accomplish difficult projects when hoping for a promotion.

Conversely, when anxiety develops into a disorder, it can cause more harm than good. By interfering with an individual’s ability to function or be productive, an anxiety disorder defeats the intended purpose of anxiety. When anxiety hinders a person’s ability to function normally, it is cause for concern.

Anxiety crosses the threshold from normal to a disorder when, instead of motivating, it inhibits. Something goes wrong in the process. Ideally, a person would experience anxiety prior to an event such as giving a speech. The worries and apprehension about the outcome would in turn push the person to work harder to prepare his materials and practice their delivery to make sure he sounds knowledgeable and that his words are clear to his audience. However, in a person with an anxiety disorder, he may find himself so preoccupied with negative possibilities that he is unable to focus. He may experience significant nausea and the inability to sleep or concentrate. When the day arrives for him to give his speech, he will be ill-prepared for the event and therefore invent excuses to keep from having to make his presentation. He may create a sudden illness, fabricate an unexpected emergency or even avoid the affair altogether.

To some, this may sound like an extreme case, but this is the genuine reality for people living with an anxiety disorder. It is a very legitimate illness with considerable symptoms. However, it is not hopeless or incurable. There are treatment options for people who have an anxiety disorder.

Traditional couples or family counseling can be successful for individuals who are experiencing relationship problems as a result of an anxiety disorder or for those whose anxiety stems from trouble with intimacy or commitment.

Cognitive behavior therapy can help individuals manage their anxiety. By learning how to combat and eventually change the negative thoughts and feelings, individuals can take back control of their lives.

Psychoanalysis helps to develop a better understanding of the anxiety and its causes. Through open discussion with a therapist, individuals can uncover the underlying foundation of their anxiety. Then they can more effectively approach and resolve the issue at its source.

Regardless of the treatment preference, individuals generally have the best outcomes if their symptoms are evaluated early on. As with many illnesses, the best chance for overcoming an anxiety disorder is to catch it in its early stages.


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