There is a significant difference between ‘normal’ anxiety and an anxiety disorder. ‘Normal’ anxiety is short-lived…the apprehension, worry, or nervousness that goes along with ‘normal’ anxiety usually occurs after experiencing some stressor, like relationship problems, job pressure, financial problems, etc. However, ‘normal’ anxiety usually goes away when the stressor is lifted, and your functioning stays intact. Anxiety can transform into an anxiety disorder when the anxiety symptoms become chronic and disrupts your functioning with relationships, job/school, and activities of daily living.
Anxiety as a symptom (‘normal’ anxiety) is common, and most of us have experienced anxiety at some time in our lives. Common descriptive terms for anxiety include being anxious, worried, concerned, and nervous, etc, and these are just isolated symptoms. ‘Normal’ anxiety is needed for healthy development…without anxiety, we would be too comfortable in our current state, and would be less likely to change and be successful. Anxiety in healthy amounts helps us focus and be more alert, thereby contributing to the completion of important tasks. For example, a deadline at work or school comes up, and the anxiety felt by the looming deadline helps you focus and be more alert, allowing you to work harder to fulfill the project by the deadline. Without anxiety, we become complacent and we are less likely to meet the deadline or complete the project. Anxiety is needed in healthy doses to develop and achieve goals in life. People who excel under pressure are masters of utilizing their anxiety to their advantage to achieve.
At times, anxiety gets overwhelming…we all get “stressed-out” to the point where our worries and nervousness become so prominent that the anxiety takes on a life of its own, so that we are not able to function. The anxiety makes you unhappy over not being able to achieve what you are so worried about. Some can handle these brief episodes of stressed-out periods, and recover to once again have healthy anxiety, which helps you to perform and have good feelings about yourself. However, others may not be able to recover from stress, overwhelming their coping abilities, and the anxiety starts to affect functioning, quality of life, and relationships. It is at this point where an anxiety disorder develops, where a constellation of anxiety symptoms are associated with significant disruption of functioning.
Additionally, anxiety disorders are mental illness, and are less common than anxiety symptoms (‘normal’ anxiety). As mentioned previously, it takes a constellation of anxiety symptoms and significant disruption in functioning to define an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, and specific phobia.