Understanding the Difference Between Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

Understanding the Difference Between Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety and worry are ordinary emotions that everyone experiences sometimes: It’s normal to feel nervous when you’re being evaluated, or the outcome is important, like when you’re taking a test, interviewing for a new job, or making a hard decision.

But when apprehension and concern become an excessive and inescapable feature of daily life — as they have for millions of adolescents and adults in the United States — anxiety is no longer routine; it’s a disorder.

As mental health experts who specialize in helping people of all ages gain the upper hand over persistent anxiety, our skilled team at EXIS Recovery, Inc. wants you to know that there’s nothing normal about debilitating anxiety. Luckily, anxiety disorders are highly treatable — as long as you recognize you may have a problem.

Here, we explore the difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder.

When feelings of anxiety are normal

Anxiety is a standard physiological reaction to many different circumstances that happen throughout life. The worry, nervousness, and unease that anxiety causes are like the “alarm bell” feelings of an internal warning system that alerts you when stressful events, unpredictable situations, or dangerous circumstances demand extra attention and precaution.

Essentially, your anxiety reaction focuses your attention, prepares you for confrontation, and helps you ready your escape from harm or risk. Experts refer to this internal warning system as your natural “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Normal anxiety:

When your anxiety response is healthy, its alarm bells can be beneficial: Normal anxiety can make you pay attention when you should, motivate you to up your game, and keep you safe. And when the situation that prompts your fight-or-flight response ends, your feelings of worry, nervousness, and apprehension taper off, too.

A closer look at anxiety disorders

So, when is anxiety problematic? Simply put, anxiety becomes a mental health concern when it surfaces unexpectedly and feels overwhelming or unmanageable. An anxiety disorder can:

Whereas normal anxiety can be beneficial, an anxiety disorder is more like a confining cage that stops you from living a full life, damages your physical health, and undermines your overall well-being.

At some point in their lives, about 30% of Americans experience anxiety that’s so persistent, intense, disruptive, or debilitating that it meets the diagnostic criteria of an anxiety disorder.

As the most pervasive mental health condition both in the U.S. and across the globe, anxiety disorders take many different forms. Some of the most common are:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD causes persistent and excessive worry or fears about any (or almost every) facet of life, ranging from personal health, family, work, and finances to ordinary daily activities and social events. It often co-occurs with depression and chronic pain. 

Panic disorder

This anxiety disorder causes panic attacks or sudden intense feelings of fear or terror that come on quickly, often triggering feelings of impending doom along with shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and chest pain. 


Phobias are deep-seated, irrational fears of certain situations, activities, objects, or animals. Common phobia-based anxiety disorders include a fear of heights, flying, needles, enclosed spaces, and crowds. Phobias and panic disorder often co-occur.

Social anxiety disorder

This anxiety disorder causes extreme apprehension about social and performance situations. People with social anxiety experience intense discomfort when interacting with others and live with a relentless fear of being negatively perceived, judged, and rejected by others. 

Anxiety as a symptom

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two mental health conditions that feature anxiety as a defining characteristic. With OCD, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) cause anxiety that repetitive behaviors (compulsions) aim to alleviate; with PTSD, anxiety is a response to trauma.

Worried about anxiety? We can help

Feeling apprehensive about flying, anxious about giving a speech, or worried about health or money issues is normal. But if your fears keep you up at night or stop you from living your life to the fullest, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Luckily, anxiety is highly treatable, and we can help. If you’re ready to stop feeling trapped by irrational thoughts and excessive worry, call or click online to schedule an appointment at EXIS Recovery Inc. in West Los Angeles, California, today. 

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