Are you just feeling anxious or living with an anxiety disorder?
When we talk about anxiety, it is easy for things to get confusing very quickly. The problem is that we use the term anxiety for a huge range of feelings, including the average stress of going to a job interview or feeling “off” for a day all the way to someone curled in a ball struggling to breathe.
Unlike issues such as eating disorders, where terms like “being anorexic” tend to minimize the reality of the condition through dramatic overstatement, those saying they struggle with the type of anxiety common in everyday life aren’t misusing the language to make a point. It is simply that we often lack the terms to better quantify a wide range of experiences.
For example, a person feeling anxious about an upcoming bill or a big date IS feeling a form of anxiety. Their body is reacting to its environment or present stressors and exhibiting a response that is believed to have existed since the dawn of man.
It is this anxiety that triggers the “fight or flight” response that helps protect us from danger and take appropriate steps to prepare for significant issues in our lives. It wouldn’t be unfair for this person to describe how anxious they felt, or even report symptoms of anxiety such as lightheadedness or difficulty breathing.
However, this person would not be diagnosed with clinical anxiety.
On the other hand, people living with an anxiety disorder would often use the same language to describe their very different experience. Clinical anxiety can have significant effects on their lives and may create issues in both their professional and personal lives.
The key to differentiating these two experiences is understanding these differences between “feeling anxious” and living with an anxiety disorder:
What is causing it?
As noted before, “normal” anxiety is tied to a stressor of some form. These can be anything from small issues like an upcoming test to the alarming sight of a shadowy figure in a dark alley. In all these cases, the brain and body are responding to a stimulus, providing energy and “nervousness” to steer a person away from danger.
In the case of clinical anxiety, this is often not the case. A person living with an anxiety disorder may often feel intense anxiety with no clear source or reason. In other situations, the fears and anxiety may be triggered by something irrational or insignificant to others. More so, people with an anxiety disorder often recognize their fears are not based in reality but cannot stop the cascade of fears and emotion.
What does it feel like?
While someone who experiences an anxiety-inducing situation may feel lightheaded afterward or feel possibly out of breath, these feelings are generally fleeting and the result of exertion – whether it takes the form of intense studying or fleeing for safety.
For people living with an anxiety disorder, these feelings are often part and parcel of their experiences with anxiety. They may also experience more severe forms of these feelings, such as intense dizziness, inability to concentrate, sweating, shaking, or depersonalization. Even in cases of “normal” anxiety, these individuals may be unable to manage or cope with the situation because of the wave of intense anxiety symptoms.
How long does it last?
When we experience typical forms of anxiety, our body responds to the situation until the issue has been dealt with. Then, the body begins processes to resume its normal state and eliminate the anxious feelings. For example, giving a big presentation can make anyone anxious the day they have to step up to the podium. Then, after the presentation is over, they feel relieved and relaxed.
Those with an anxiety disorder, however, may worry about the presentation for days or even weeks beforehand. The pressure and fear may feel inescapable, no matter how much they prepare. To make matters worse, these feelings don’t just wash away once the presentation is over. They may irrationally worry they made a mistake they didn’t realize or fear that their presentation was received poorly – without any evidence the audience was displeased. The anxiety disorder turns what would typically be a stressful day into weeks of fear and worry.
How does it affect your life?
Perhaps the most significant difference between clinical anxiety and feeling anxious is how it affects your day-to-day life. Normal forms of anxiety are healthy and can actually lead to better performance or extra motivation.
When you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, though, the ceaseless fear and worry can have widespread effects throughout their entire life. Anxiety may make it difficult to finish assignments in work or school, as a person is unable to concentrate through their anxiety. It can also trigger avoidance that might lead to missing classes, missing work with little or no notice, or even being unable to make a trip to the grocery store. It can also be detrimental to personal relationships, as a person with anxiety may be seen as “unreliable” or “flakey”.
What to do if it is clinical anxiety
If the experiences of those with clinical anxiety sound eerily representative of your life, the first thing to know is you are not alone. More than 40 million adults in the United States live with an anxiety disorder. More importantly, you should know recovery is possible and help is out there. Brookhaven Hospital strives to ensure every patient is treated first as a person, rather than a case study. To find out how we can help, call 888-298-HOPE (4673) today.