Do You Have Normal Anxiety or a Disorder?

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Anxiety is a general, unpleasant feeling of apprehension. When you're anxious, you may feel restless and experience physical reactions such as a headache, sweating, palpitations, chest tightness, and upset stomach.

Anxiety is a normal human experience. In fact, it can be a potentially beneficial response in anticipation of dangerous situations. The physical symptoms of anxiety are coming from your autonomic nervous system response. It is different from but related to the fear, which is a natural reaction to a clear and present danger.

While anxiety normal and common, it can become maladaptive. So, when is anxiety normal and when is it an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety Can Be Normal and Beneficial

There is an infinite number of human experiences that cause normal anxiety. Life offers us the experience of many anxiety-provoking “firsts," such as a first date, the first day of school, the first time away from home.

As we journey through life, there are also many important life events, both good and bad, that cause varying amounts of anxiety. These events can include things such as, taking a school exam, getting married, becoming a parent, getting divorced, changing jobs, coping with illness, and many others.

The discomfort anxiety brings is considered normal and even beneficial.

Anxiety about an upcoming test, for example, may cause you to work harder in preparing for the exam. The anxiety you feel when walking through a dark and deserted parking lot to your car will cause you to be alert and aware of your surroundings.

Anxiety Can Also Be a Problem

While it’s pretty clear that anxiety is normal and even beneficial, for many people, it becomes a problem. The main difference between normal anxiety and problematic anxiety is between the source and the intensity of the experience.

Normal anxiety is intermittent and is expected based on certain events or situations.

Problem anxiety, on the other hand, tends to be chronic and irrational, and it interferes with many life functions. Avoidance behavior, incessant worry, and concentration and memory problems may all stem from problem anxiety.

These symptoms may be so intense that they cause family, work, and social difficulties.

The components of problem anxiety include the physical responses to the anxiety (such as palpitations and stomach upset), distorted thoughts that become a source of excessive worry, and behavioral changes affecting the usual way a person lives life and interacts with others. Problem anxiety may lead to or reflect an anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), for example, is defined as "the presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive," along with physical and cognitive symptoms of anxiety, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you believe your anxiety is a problem, it is important to talk to your doctor. Because women tend to experience anxiety symptoms more frequently than men, experts now recommend that all women and girls aged 13 and older be screened for anxiety disorders during routine health screenings. Early detection and intervention is important since anxiety may grow worse over time if left untreated.

Excessive anxiety can be caused by a number of medical and psychological conditions. Problem anxiety has also been indicated in a variety of physical illnesses, such as heart disease, stomach problems, and pain. But, the best reason to talk to your doctor is that anxiety is controllable, and its complications are avoidable with treatment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Updated July 2018.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

  3. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580

Additional Reading
  • Kaplan MD, Harold I, Sadock MD, Benjamin J. Synopsis of Psychiatry, Eleventh Edition. 2014;Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.