What’s the difference between normal and problem anxiety?

Although they’re often used interchangeably, there’s a big difference between being nervous and being anxious. Being nervous (also known as normal anxiety) is an intermittent and beneficial trait that in an indication that you care a lot about the outcome of an event or situation and which also helps you to be more vigilant in potentially dangerous situations. Genuine anxiety (also known as problem anxiety) is an irrational condition that negatively impacts your everyday life, not only adults are affected by problem anxiety, children also suffer from it, for example when they get back to school. This is called “school anxiety“.

Being nervous from time to time is perfectly normal and is something we all experience. But worrying about small or large things on a regular basis and being so worried that you’re unable to live a regular life is a sign of problem anxiety that needs to be addressed. Another type of anxiety is anxiety about your health.

To help you decide whether you’re experiencing short-term normal anxiety or chronic problem anxiety, you need to be able to tell the difference.

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Normal anxiety

Normal anxiety is having a nervous reaction to a stressful situation. The feeling usually arises when you take on a new major challenge, such as attending a job interview or sitting an important test. You may also experience normal anxiety when you’re expecting medical results or have to speak in front of a large group of people.

When you feel normal anxiety, you may have:

  • Dry mouth
  • Sweaty Palms
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feelings of self-doubt

These physical and emotional sensations are uncomfortable and uncontrollable — but they only last for a short time. After you’ve gone through the interview, sat through the test, or completed the event that’s making you nervous, your symptoms subside. 

Feelings caused by normal anxiety don’t result in you avoiding nerve-racking situations in the future. Neither do they affect your everyday life long term or cause you to make major lifestyle changes.

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Problem anxiety

Anxiety becomes a problem when it’s not temporary nervous feelings about a single upcoming situation. Problem anxiety is something you deal with every day. You spend your life in a constant state of dread and struggle to keep yourself calm, even though there’s no imminent threat or nerve-racking event.

As well as the symptoms of normal anxiety, problem anxiety also causes constant feelings of dread. These overwhelming feelings can cause you to avoid places and situations that make you feel uncomfortable and increase your anxiety levels. Having such intense feelings and using negative behaviors to cope can significantly interfere with your day-to-day life.

For example, it’s normal to feel nervous about attending a job interview. But when you’re unemployed and avoid applying for jobs because you can’t handle the idea of sitting through an interview, you may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

How to tell the difference

Being anxious or nervous both cause several cognitive and physical symptoms — but those are the only similarities. Aside from that, anxiety and nervousness are two very different states which you a licensed therapist can diagnose by studying the following elements:

  • Length of time: Nervousness ends as soon as the nerve-racking event is over. Anxiety is constant. While anxiety levels might increase and decrease throughout the day, anxious feelings never fully go away.
  • Intensity: When you’re nervous, you may feel on edge. But your feelings don’t stop you from doing the things that make you nervous. Anxiety makes it difficult to do everyday tasks and take part in things you enjoy. 
  • Physical tension: Normal anxiety can cause your heart rate to increase shortly before the event takes place. The physical symptoms of problem anxiety are more severe and long-term. They include tightness in the chest, headaches, and trembling.
  • Focus: Nervousness is targeted to something specific that you can easily name. Anxiety is more general and even though you feel anxious, you can’t always define what it’s caused by.
  • Perspective: Feelings of nervousness are often justified because the event in question involves doing something new and beyond your comfort zone. If you suffer from anxiety, you may blow things out of proportion and feel much more intensely worried about something than it truly deserves.

Steps for managing anxiety

If you’re struggling with anxiety, there are some healthy coping mechanisms you can practice at home which may help manage your symptoms. Try one of these techniques the next time you feel your anxiety getting the best of you:

  • Avoid the media: Social media and the news both increase feelings of stress. If you can’t give up the news altogether, give yourself two minutes to check a trustworthy news source once a day and no more. The more time you spend reading about current events and people’s opinions on them, the greater anxiety you’ll experience.
  • Take time to relax: If your day is mostly filled with things you have to do instead of things you want to do, remember to take time out daily to decompress and deal with uncomfortable emotions. Doing something you enjoy that also helps you recharge and regroup will arm you with the will and power you need to fight your anxiety.
  • Practice mindfulness: Taking ten minutes a day to tune into yourself and your surroundings can make you feel instantly calm and relaxed. If you’ve never meditated before, there are plenty of excellent free apps available to guide you, such as Calm and Headspace.
  • Check your negative thoughts: When a negative thought, such as “I can’t do this”, pops into your head, challenge it. First, ask yourself if the thought is true and next ask yourself if it’s helpful. In many instances, negative thoughts are falsely created by an anxious mind. Challenging them can help free you from them and reset your thoughts.
  • Exposure: If your anxiety stops you from doing ordinary, everyday tasks, encourage yourself to get used to them by exposing yourself to them a little at a time. This can help you build up confidence and realize that your anxiety is unfounded. It’s best to practice exposure after you’re comfortable with relaxation and calming techniques.

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If your anxiety is becoming a problem

It’s normal to feel nervous sometimes — but not all the time. If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms that intensely affect the way you live your everyday time, you may have an anxiety disorder. This isn’t something that will disappear on its own. You need professional help.

Take the first step and make an appointment with Cyti Psychological today. You can sign up for an online appointment and talk to a trained anxiety therapist from the comfort of your own home at the time of your choosing. Your therapist will be able to determine if you have problem anxiety and will help you manage your symptoms so you can get back to enjoying life.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741