Having Anxiety vs. Feeling Anxious: What’s the Difference?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress, and isn’t always a bad thing. But when it gets to be uncontrollable or excessive to the point where it affects quality of life, this may be indicative of an anxiety disorder.

Knowing the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder can help you talk with your doctor about your symptoms and any concerns you might be having.

Read on to find out more about the difference between “regular” anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorder vs. feeling anxious

You might wonder what the difference is between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder, especially if you find yourself feeling anxious a lot.

There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • panic disorder
  • specific phobias
  • social anxiety disorder
  • separation anxiety disorder
  • agoraphobia

Generalized anxiety disorder can look a lot like “regular” anxiety at first. But it’s characterized by unrealistic or excessive worry about everything — even things you might not even be able to name. It also lasts at least 6 months and can get in the way of daily functioning.

GAD has symptoms like:

  • trouble concentrating
  • difficulty sleeping
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • muscle tension
  • repeated abdominal pain or diarrhea
  • sweaty palms
  • rapid heartbeat

Typical anxiety is a response to stress, and this is normal. When the stressor is over, the anxiety usually goes away. In anxiety disorders, removing the stressor or trigger doesn’t always reduce the anxiety.

Anxiety caused by stress doesn’t generally significantly impair one’s life or cause distress. If your anxiety is disrupting your quality of life, it might be time to re-evaluate whether it may be an anxiety disorder.

How to tell the difference

Anxiety or being anxious isn’t always a bad thing. You can think of it almost as a spectrum or continuum of sorts. Sometimes it can help us prepare for things or help keep us alert in dangerous situations. It’s also a normal reaction to stress. But anxiety disorders aren’t a typical reaction to stress.

In general, two things need to be present that define an anxiety disorder, as opposed to simply being anxious:

  • the anxiety is out of proportion to the situation or isn’t age appropriate
  • it impairs the ability to function normally

Another common findingTrusted Source across anxiety disorders is out-of-the-ordinary and excessive anticipatory responding in the face of uncertainty.

We all face uncertainty in our lives. But someone with an anxiety disorder may anticipate the uncertainty and potential outcomes in a way that isn’t proportionate to the actual event.

An anxiety disorder is different from “normal” anxiety.

“Abnormal” anxiety is defined by excessive and persistent worries that don’t go away, even when there’s nothing to be stressed or nervous about. With an anxiety disorder, people usually try to avoid triggering situations or things that worsen their symptoms.

Real life examples

If you wake up one morning and you know you have a math test later that day, it’s normal to be nervous or anxious about the test.

Your heart might pound and your stomach might churn, and you might be thinking a lot about the test and your possible result. Once the test is over, you’re likely more relaxed, and physically back to normal.

If you wake up one morning and, for no reason, are convinced that something bad will happen to a loved one, think about it all day, and then continue to have intrusive thoughts about it the next day, that may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

An anxiety disorder is often characterized by excessive and hard-to-control worry that occurs for most of the day, more days than not.

It might also consist of significant physical signs of anxiety like:

  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • trouble sleeping
  • digestive problems

Managing an anxiety disorder

If you’re living with an anxiety disorder, know that it’s treatable and manageable. With appropriate treatment, you can feel better, so it’s worth it to get a correct diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Treatment for an anxiety disorder can include:

  • psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • medication, like anti-anxiety medication, antidepressants or beta-blockers
  • support groups
  • stress management techniques

Other complementary treatments that may be used in conjunction with medication or therapy include:

  • regular exercise like tai chi or yoga
  • meditation or relaxation techniques
  • improving diet
  • massage or acupuncture

When to seek care

If your anxiety is interfering with your everyday life, or if it’s affecting your health or quality of life, talk with your doctor or a healthcare professional. There are ways to help manage anxiety, and you don’t have to deal with this alone.

Here are some resources that might be helpful:

  • Anxiety & Depression Association of America
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness


Although there are some similarities between feeling “normally” anxious and having an anxiety disorder, they’re not the same. Normal anxiety is usually short-term and related to a stressor. It doesn’t cause significant distress, and is resolved in a short time.

But an anxiety disorder isn’t something that simply goes away and it persists over time. Treatment is necessary in order to manage it and minimize its impact on your life.

Anxiety disorders can be treated and managed. If you think you might have an anxiety disorder, talk with your doctor. They can help guide you to your next steps and help with potential treatments.

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