The Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having a Disorder

million adults in the U.S. are affected by anxiety disorders

Anxiety is a normal part of life. In fact, a healthy dose of worry is even considered protective since it alerts us to danger. However, when this healthy level turns excessive and you find yourself overly worried and anxious about things like daily tasks, your family’s safety, or situations that others see as non-threatening, then you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18.1% of the U.S. population each year. And while they are a very treatable disease, only about one-third of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the average age of onset for anxiety disorders is 11 years old.

Different Types of Anxiety Disorders

Since anxiety is such a complex disorder, it can be difficult to define and diagnose with a single set of general criteria. Because of this, mental health professionals have broken down the disorder into several categories to help those who suffer from it.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder or GAD is characterized by excessive worry, thoughts, emotions over simple everyday activities such as work, money, family, and health over the course of at least six months. For people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, it can be difficult to calm their concerns even though they are aware that their anxiety is more severe than the situation warrants.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating and finding your mind goes blank
  • Difficulty controlling the worry
  • Irritability
  • Sleep problems
  • Muscle tension

Social Anxiety Disorder

Also called social phobia, this type of anxiety is characterized by an intense fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation. Because of this, they often avoid these types of situations and if they can’t, they experience significant anxiety and stress.

Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder

  • Physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating
  • Feeling powerless over their anxiety
  • Feeling very self-conscious and avoiding social situations
  • Appears visibly anxious

Panic Disorder

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic disorder occurs in people who have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear, anxiety, or discomfort. Some people experience a need to flee until the attack is over, which usually peaks in a matter of minutes.

Symptoms of Panic Disorder

  • Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering or choking
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • Feelings of unreality or being unconnected to oneself
  • Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack
  • Intense worries about when the next attack will happen
  • Fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
  • Fear of dying

How to Treat Anxiety

Even though the symptoms of anxiety can feel overwhelming and permanent, anxiety is highly treatable. If you or someone you love is experiencing pervasive anxiety, it’s important that you seek help from your primary care physician or a mental health professional. Individuals struggling with anxiety can often feel better by undergoing a combination of therapies, including psychotherapy, medication, and self-management.

Psychotherapy for Anxiety

Otherwise known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy can help you understand your diagnosis and how it impacts your life. Your therapist will also work with you to develop strategies that decrease the severity of the symptoms.

One psychotherapy technique that has been proven successful in treating anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do. CBT teaches a person new ways of thinking, acting, and reacting to situations that cause anxiety.


Medications for anxiety may help relieve the symptoms associated with the disorder. The most common classes of medications used to treat anxiety disorders are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs (most common being benzodiazepines) and beta-blockers, such as propranolol and atenolol which help treat the physical symptoms.

Managing Anxiety Day to Day

In addition to receiving professional medical help, individuals struggling with anxiety are encouraged to seek out ways to help manage symptoms at home. There are a variety of approaches and actives people can try as part of an overall treatment plan including:

  • Regular exercise
  • Practice mindfulness meditation and deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation management
  • Get enough sleep
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine (both can trigger anxiety and panic attacks)
  • Challenge negative thoughts and focus on what you can control

Don’t fight your anxiety, just limit it. By giving yourself a time limit of 10-20 minutes and worrying through all of the issues bothering you then turning it off, you can help minimize your anxious feelings.

Finding Treatment for an Anxiety Disorder

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains an online Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator that can help locate mental health services in your area.

Additionally, there are ongoing clinical trials you can participate in that seek to gather information about potential medications and therapies before they are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating anxiety. These clinical trials take place at various hospitals, universities, and clinics all over the country.