Whether it’s giving a toast at a friend’s wedding or waiting for the results of medical tests, we all get worried, nervous, or stressed out sometimes. But what’s the difference between feeling anxious and having anxiety?
To find out, we talked with Dr. Karen Cassiday, president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She says the essential feeling is the same—it’s the intensity that matters, and the effect the feeling has on a person’s life.
“Anxiety is a general human experience,” Dr. Cassiday tells Mental Floss. “It’s feeling some mild apprehension and the physical sensations that go with it, but being able to handle it. In an anxiety disorder, that danger signal gets out of control, and you feel like you have to take preventative action in order to protect yourself.”
A doctor may diagnose an anxiety disorder if someone has been feeling anxious and worried for months, and if their symptoms are making it hard to sleep, study, work, or otherwise live full lives.
“Some people, for example, might not take a raise at work because it means they might have to speak to people,” Cassiday says, “or travel, if they’re afraid of flying.”
Anxiety disorders take three forms: generalized anxiety, in which the stress tends to attach itself to anything and everything; social anxiety, which can make it very hard for a person to interact with others; and panic disorder, which manifests in scary panic attacks.
“People with anxiety disorders avoid normal life activities and experiences in order to avoid triggering their anxiety,” Cassiday says. “They aren’t able to choose to do things that people normally enjoy or that make their lives rich. They lose opportunities to connect with relationships or in the community, opportunities to be productive, to volunteer, and to make money or finish school.”
These conditions are strikingly common, affecting as many as 25 percent of the population.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms—well, we’re not going to tell you not to worry, but take some comfort in the fact that these conditions are treatable. Many people find relief with talk therapy and medication.
For folks who aren’t ready to take that step, Cassiday recommends a free app called Self Anxiety Management, and getting into meditation, yoga, and exercise.
“It doesn’t matter which type,” she says. “The best one is the one you’re willing to do.”