by Linda K. Laffey, MFT


Anxious feelings happen.  They’re supposed to happen.  They’re normal.

When your pulse races and your muscles tense, anxiety is doing what it should:  Getting you ready to meet a challenge, or to step up to the plate.

Totally normal.

But what about an anxiety disorder?

According to the latest statistics, 40 million people suffer the intense, debilitating, often unreasonable, desire to fight or flee on a daily basis.

How much anxiety is too much?

How much fear, worry, and alarm keep you safe?

And how much puts you in danger of missing out on the best possible version of your life?

It’s very important to know the difference.

To be sure what you’re managing are anxious thoughts, rather than something more chronic, use the following 5 indicators as a guide. Then, consider talking to a counselor to be sure anxiety is the helpful measure of vigilance it’s supposed to be, and not getting in your way.

5 major differences between anxious feelings and an anxiety disorder:

  • Stress Management.

Normal anxiety is a response to real danger or stress. You’ll experience anxiety when you argue with your partner or take a new job. Your response to stress will be an appropriate emotional response that says, “Get ready.”

Anxiety disorders find life in general to be stressful.  Anxiety will not fade or let up.  Individual stressors are often indistinguishable and revolving.  Anxiety is almost constant.  Seemingly harmless tasks and interactions are enough to make life exhausting, or impossible.


  • Duration and Intensity of Stress Response.

Anxious feelings come and go.  The flood of cortisol and adrenaline in your system is short lived.  Meant only for those fight or flight interludes, the stress response in your body fades as the danger passes.  Calmer feelings resume. Anxiety disorders also produce a  flood of stress hormones and emotional response.  Except the flood doesn’t end. Reactions to stressors are prolonged and overblown.  Fear and worry may begin weeks before a perceived stressor, like a family event or job interview, and linger for weeks afterward.


  • Severity of Physical Reaction.

Typical anxious feelings may be accompanied by sensations that signal a tense situation, like tensed muscles, a queasy stomach, or dry mouth.

The physical manifestations of an anxiety disorder are much more serious.  Dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, racing pulse, headaches, and nausea may be regular occurrences.  If these symptoms and the anxiety disorder go unaddressed for too long, long-term health problems can occur or be exacerbated.


  • Degree of Psychological Disturbance.

Anxious feelings can sharpen focus temporarily, set you on edge, and direct your thinking toward the stressor.  For a while, you are motivated, and experience a surge of momentum and energy.  Anxious feelings may be uncomfortable, even unpleasant, but not altogether unwelcome.  They help you get things done.

People with anxiety disorders often feel emotionally and cognitively upset.  Some report feeling a level of detachment, or disconnected from reality, or their own bodies.  They feel as if their minds or emotions are scrambled.  Concentration is disrupted.  Racing thoughts, mind chatter and negative thoughts tend to ramp up everyday worries, and reduce logical thinking.


  • Level of Impairment.

Anxious feelings are not handicaps.  They are a normal part of life.  They’re manageable and motivational with the right coping tools.

Conversely, anxiety disorders affect the way you live, and how you relate to other people.  School, career, love, and everyday life are disrupted.  Ineffective coping mechanisms, like avoidance or aggression, hinder productivity and life satisfaction, further exacerbating anxiety.

Do not hesitate to seek help.  Anxiety disorders are best addressed with the help of a trusted and experienced therapist.  You don’t have to live in fighting stance or poised for escape.  Anxiety disorders can be treated successfully in a relatively short period of time, and without medication.


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