Nervous vs. Anxious: What's the Difference?

Anxiety vs. problem anxiety

Verywell / Laura Porter

It's common to hear someone say, "This is giving me anxiety!" when faced with a situation that makes them uncomfortable or nervous.

But although the terms "anxiety" and "nervous" are often used interchangeably, feeling nervous and having an anxiety disorder are two very different things. So how do you know if the nervousness you're feeling is normal or actually an anxiety disorder?

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Watch Now: 7 Ways to Reduce Your Anxiety

What It Means to Be Nervous

Nervousness is a natural reaction to a stressful situation. It usually hits when you face a new or important challenge, such as taking an exam or giving a presentation to a room full of people. You might be nervous when waiting for medical test results lab results or before walking into a job interview.

Many physical sensations can accompany nervousness, including a dry mouth, sweaty palms, and dizziness. You may also experience feelings of self-doubt. These feelings and sensations are both uncomfortable and uncontrollable.

Nervousness tends to go away once you've gotten through the situation. And it rarely leads to you avoid nerve-wracking situations in the future.

Feelings of nervousness that don't disrupt your everyday life are normal.

What It Means to Be Anxious

Anxiety, on the other hand, is something you deal with on an ongoing basis. You live your life in a constant state of dread, and you struggle to calm yourself.

In addition to the physical symptoms, the suffocating feeling of dread accompanying anxiety disorders can even compel you to avoid places or situations that incite these uncomfortable symptoms. These feelings and negative coping behaviors eventually begin to interfere with your day-to-day life.

For instance, it's normal to feel nervous about going to the doctor because of what you could learn. But if your fear becomes so overwhelming that you avoid going to the doctor altogether, you may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

Is It Nerves or Anxiety?

Nervousness and anxiety are similar in that both cause a variety of physical and cognitive symptoms. But that's where the similarities end.

  • Length of time: Nervousness ends when the nerve-wracking situation is over. Anxiety is persistent. The intensity may ebb and flow, but it never completely goes away. 
  • Intensity: Nervousness doesn't prevent you from doing the things that make you nervous. Anxiety, on the other hand, can prevent you from doing something you enjoy and make it difficult to focus and go about your day.
  • Focus: Nervousness is a response to something specific, while anxiety is often more general. You may feel anxious but can't always pinpoint what you're anxious about.

Remember that while nervousness can be a sign of an anxiety disorder, it's very common to experience it from time to time without actually having an anxiety disorder.

Nervousness
  • Temporary

  • Less intense

  • Response to something specific

  • Rarely leads to negative coping behaviors

  • Manageable with self-care

Anxiety
  • Persistent and ongoing

  • More intense

  • Often more generalized

  • Interferes with daily life

  • May require therapy or medication

Tips for Managing Nervousness

If you are prone to nervousness, there are several ways to ease your symptoms. The following are some easy tips to can help get your nerves under control:

  • Practice, practice, practice. You're less likely to freeze up if you're prepared. If you have a presentation coming up, practice until you feel relaxed. If you're nervous about a hard conversation you must have with a friend or loved one, try thinking through or even writing down what you want to say. Nothing calms nerves and gives you as much confidence as being well-prepared.
  • Breathe. When you're nervous, your muscles tighten and you may even hold your breath. Take a few deep breaths to get oxygen to your brain and relax your body.
  • Stay positive. When the nervousness bubbles up, don't freak out. Remember, that it's normal to feel nervous sometimes and remind yourself that it will pass.

Tips for Managing Mild Anxiety

There are different ways that you may be able to overcome mild anxiety on your own to enjoy better emotional wellness. Below are three strategies you might try to cope with your anxious feelings:

  • Smile. Smiling—even when you don't feel like it—increases endorphins, replacing anxiety with calm and making you feel good.
  • Breathe. Deep breathing is a great way to reduce anxiety. It also helps get oxygen to your brain and will enable you to think more clearly.
  • Journal. Journaling naturally forces you to slow down and work through your anxious thoughts. It can also help you identify your negative thought patterns, which can help you find new ways to cope. 

Whatever you do, try not to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. Although avoidance may give you some short-term relief, it only hurts you in the long run.

How to Know If You Have an Anxiety Disorder

If your anxiety is so intense that you're unable to cope with it, you may have an anxiety disorder.

This anxiety can be a symptom of many conditions, including:

Each condition presents its unique symptoms. However, all anxiety disorders involve excessive fear, worry, or dread that interfere with your daily activities.

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.

A Word From Verywell

It's OK to feel nervous, but not all of the time. If you think you're experiencing symptoms in your daily life to an intense degree, you may have an anxiety disorder.

It's essential to reach out to a mental health provider to help confirm a diagnosis. Then, they can work with you to determine the best treatment plan to address and manage your anxiety.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

  2. Kraft TL, Pressman SD. Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress responsePsychol Sci. 2012;23(11):1372-1378. doi:10.1177/0956797612445312

  3. Ma X, Yue Z-Q, Gong Z-Q, et al. The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Front Psychol. 2017;8:874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874

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