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The difference between regular feelings of anxiety and a true anxiety disorder


Everyone will experience anxiety from time to time. The demands and stress of college life may even make experiencing anxiety more frequent. So it can be tough to tell the difference between normal anxiety and a condition like social anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. If anxiety is affecting you or someone you know, it’s important to learn the difference.

In general, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. In fact, it can be a good thing. Anxiety motivates you to accomplish your assignments, to study harder for a test and it can warn you when you’re in a dangerous situation. It informs you to be extra vigilant about your environment — to fight or flee. An anxiety disorder, however, involves intense and excessive anxiety, along with other debilitating symptoms.

Here are several key differences:

Stressor. Usually normal anxiety occurs in response to a stressor, such as an exam, an upcoming interview, a fight with a friend or a new job. When you struggle with an anxiety disorder you’re anxious almost or all of the time, yet there are times when you can’t spot the source of the stress. For instance, people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — there are six types of anxiety disorders — can have a difficult time just getting through the day. Even seemingly small responsibilities, like paying the bills, make them feel anxious.

Intensity and Length. An anxiety disorder also produces intense and excessive emotional responses. Even if you’re reacting to a stressor, your anxiety is disproportionate to that stressor. Many people are on edge before an exam, but a person with an anxiety disorder might be anxious several weeks beforehand, and will experience intense symptoms right before and during the exam. Also, normal anxiety is fleeting, while an anxiety disorder is ongoing and the feelings can last weeks or months.

Other symptoms. Excessive anxiety and worry aren’t the only symptoms that accompany an anxiety disorder. There are other physical symptoms, too: dizziness, light-headedness, sweating, trembling, heart pounding, headaches and nausea. You feel like you can’t breathe, can’t talk or have to go to the bathroom frequently. People with anxiety also report feeling detachment or disconnected from reality. They feel like they can’t think straight and have difficulty concentrating. Other psychological symptoms are also present. Individuals experience racing or negative thoughts, are unable to concentrate and have worries about day-to-day things.

Impairment. When you struggle with an anxiety disorder, it affects your entire life. It impairs or interferes with your schoolwork, job and daily life. Avoidance is a symptom of some anxiety disorders and can be quite debilitating. In other words, the anxiety can cause you to avoid normal activities. You might skip class, miss a test, stop going to work, procrastinate grocery shopping or avoid anything that makes you feel anxious.

If It’s Excessive Anxiety

If you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety and you can relate to some of the above, don’t hesitate to seek help. First, know that you’re not alone. About 40 million adults in America have an anxiety disorder. Secondly, anxiety disorders are treatable. In fact, they’re one of the most treatable conditions of all emotional disorders.

If you’re concerned you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder, take our anonymous screening tool or find out how to get help on your campus.