The Difference Between Having Anxiety and Feeling Anxious

Every human being knows what it’s like to feel anxious about something, but that’s not the same thing as having anxiety. There’s a difference between normal anxiety (which is appropriate to the situation) and dealing with an anxiety disorder (which is a mental health condition).

In day-to-day life it’s actually really hard to define the line between normal worry and too much worry (as Dr. Ramani Durvasula says in “Why It’s So Crucial to Understand Anxiety Disorders“). What pushes you into problematic anxiety can vary depending on the individual. It will also vary for an individual depending on other factors in their lives. In addition, anxiety looks different for everyone who struggles with it. That means my personal examples in this article are an accurate reflection of my anxiety, but won’t be equally relatable for everyone with anxiety.

There are plenty of situations where it’s normal to feel anxious. But when anxiety starts to define your life, or keeps you from functioning normally, or generalizes to everyday situations, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with something different than normal human nervousness. Anxiety can also be a clue that something else is going on. If you think your worry might have crossed a line into too much worry, it’s a good idea to talk with a mental health professional.

Disclaimer: I’m not a counselor or therapist and this article can’t be used to diagnose anxiety or as a treatment guide. If you’re struggling with something talk with a mental health professional. They will be much more helpful than me. I also want to say that there’s nothing shameful about seeking answers or asking for help. And if you do get a diagnosis, remember it’s a starting point for treatment, not a sentence or judgement on who you are. You wouldn’t feel ashamed about finding out you have lyme disease or a heart condition, and there shouldn’t be a stigma against mental health problems either.

When You Can’t Function

Often, anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to stress. Anxiety is healthy when it warns you, “You really need to study for this test.” It’s a good thing when it sends a prickle of fear up your spine as you approach a dark alley so you can decide to go a different direction or at least be on-guard against danger. It’s also a key component of your fight-or-flight response, which is a very good thing if you’re ever in a situation where you need to run or to defend yourself.

But anxiety is not so good when the nervousness you feel approaching a test is the same way you feel about every situation you face. It doesn’t help when that prickle of fear creeps up your spine every time you leave your house, regardless of whether or not where you’re going should be safe. And it’s not helpful when your fight-or-flight response is triggered by something as normal as playing a board game with a small group of people at a party.

Typically, anxiety is diagnosed as a disorder when it interferes with normal actives and goes on long-term (rather than being confined to a few weeks or a month or two when you’re under intense stress, for example). Some people hit a point where they have so much anxiety they can’t function (that’s where I was about 2 weeks before my breakup earlier this year, when I finally made an appointment with a counselor), while other times it can be a general sense of anxiety that lasts for several months (also something I’ve dealt with).

The Difference Between Having Anxiety and Feeling Anxious |
Photo credit: HolgersFotografie via Pixabay

Constant Background Anxiety

Sometimes if you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, you can’t even identify what’s triggering the anxiety. You just feel anxious all time (or close enough) but manage to keep living a fairly normal life. Unofficially, some people call this “high-functioning anxiety” It’s not really visible to others but still affects your life in countless ways. You end up defining yourself by the anxiety even though very few people (if any) would describe you as anxious.

That’s pretty much where I’ve been for the past 10 years. I’d decided my anxiety wasn’t bad enough to qualify as “real” anxiety, which is one reason I didn’t seek out a counselor earlier. I actually felt guilty for thinking of myself as having anxiety. I mean, I only had panic attacks every few years or so, not every month or week or day. I didn’t realize until I started dating an ENFP (they’ll get you out of your comfort zone, no doubt about it) how much I’d built my life around not triggering my anxiety. Apparently it was more serious than I’d thought.

The other thing people don’t always realize about anxiety is how much it can affect you physically. Headaches, dizziness, digestive issues, nausea, muscle tension, heart palpitations — those can all be caused by anxiety. Sometimes, I actually notice my stomach cramping up or my neck muscles tightening before I realize that I’m feeling anxious. Learning how much of a role anxiety can play in physical health has helped me realize why I had digestive issues that didn’t seem tied to anything I was eating.

If This Sounds Like You …

The Difference Between Having Anxiety and Feeling Anxious |
Photo credit: Joshua Rawson-Harris via Unsplash

If you think you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, I highly recommend finding a counselor. They can help you discover and deal with things at the root of your anxiety, understand what’s going on when you have a panic attack, and develop ways to work though/with your anxiety.

A therapist can also prescribe anti-anxiety medications if that’s something they and you decide is a good idea. I’ve decided not to go that direction and think it’s good to explore other options, especially for long-term fixes, but I also know for some people medication is the best solution.

Eating healthier foods, getting enough exercise, and improving your sleep habits can all have a profound impact on anxiety (and depression, too, which often goes along with anxiety). Even cutting caffeine out can lower symptoms of anxiety. I avoid caffeine, but I know I need to work on the others more.

For me, cognitive behavioral therapy has been the thing that makes the most difference. Anxiety is a very individual thing and so is the treatment, which is why it’s so important to find a good therapist.

Here’s another friendly reminder that I am an English major, not a psychologist or therapist. So don’t read this, decide you have anxiety, then self-treat and say, “Marissa told me to.” The only thing I’m doing is sharing my perspective, my opinion, and some information. My advice is go see a therapist, counselor, or other psychology/medical professional. I can assure you from experience that trying to deal with a mental health issue on your own is not a good idea. Please go get proper help.

If You Don’t Have Anxiety …

Even if you’re not personally struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s still important to understand what anxiety can look like for others. Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, so there’s a good chance you know or will encounter someone who struggles with anxiety and the more you understand it the better you can support them.

When you do interact with someone who’s struggling with an anxiety disorder, the most important thing is to be patient and kind. Don’t make fun of them for their anxiety — chances are it already embarrasses them. Don’t chew them out because they frustrate/annoy you — that is not their intention. Don’t tell them to just “calm down” — they know they’re worrying too much but they can’t just turn the anxiety off. And don’t assume they’re faking it or that it’s not a real health problem — anxiety is very real for those of us struggling with it.

If you want to help, ask the person who’s struggling with anxiety what they need rather than assuming you know. Each person’s anxiety is different. While one person can’t stand being touched when they’re panicking, another might want a hug. Some people want to sit and talk, others need to go take a walk. If this person is your friend, family member, or significant other, then it might be a good idea to talk with them at a time when their anxiety is low about how you can support them if/when the anxiety spikes. Also, if you’re around someone having a panic attack stay calm and don’t increase their anxiety by freaking out yourself.

Further Study

For more information about anxiety disorders, there’s a really good series of videos from MedCircle that covers the topic in-depth. You can access the whole series by subscribing on their website or waiting for them to come out on YouTube. I’ll start you off with the one that’s most relevant to today’s post: “Anxiety Disorder 101 & How It’s Different from ‘Normal’ Anxiety.”

Featured image credit: Wokandapix via Pixabay

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