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Anxiety Disorder vs Anxiety

Anxiety Disorder vs Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference

What is the difference between anxiety and Anxiety Disorder?

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a trend among clients, especially those in their teens and twenties, diagnosing themselves, or others, with anxiety. While it is nice to hear younger generations are discussing mental health more openly, we need to be careful about diagnosing.

I remember taking a class in graduate school where we learned about all the different diagnoses. The first day of class the teacher warned us that as we learn about these mental health disorders, we will be sure we have at least half of them, and we will be positive our family and friends have the other half. This illustrates the fact that we all feel depressed sometimes, we all feel anxious, we are all capable of some manic moments.

However, qualifying for a mental health disorder means meeting a certain set of criteria.

Hearing clients say “I have anxiety” or “my boyfriend has anxiety” has sparked many conversations about the difference between Anxiety Disorder and the very normal, often appropriate emotion of anxiety. Everybody feels anxious at times. It is part of our biological make up, without it our species wouldn’t have survived.

Anxiety helps us react to dangerous situations.

The potential problems come when that fight or flight response is too reactive, when there is no present threat to our safety. Our brains are wired to protect us, so any time it senses any type of threat to our safety or well being, it will release those chemicals to protect us.

One of the main differences between anxiety disorder and “normal” anxiety lies in the severity of it and how much it affects your ability to function. Also, if there is truly no reason for it. Countless times a client will tell me “I was anxious for absolutely no reason”, then as they tell me about their week, their recent stressors, there is almost always something we uncover that could cause anxiety.

People are very good at minimizing their emotions, especially anxiety because it is can be so uncomfortable and irrational. The feeling itself can make you feel like you’re not ok, but feelings are not facts. Let’s repeat that, feelings are not facts! Just because you feel unsafe, ugly, fat, stupid, lazy, etc does not mean you are.

It’s also important to realize that most things in life exist on a spectrum.

In the extremes is usually where the more critical or diagnosable issues lie. Within the middle ground however, is where “normal” emotions and issues can be found. Sometimes people find even the “normal” emotions intolerable, causing them to be sure something must be “wrong” with them. But a wide variety of emotions is part of being human. One of the best things we can do for our emotional health is to respond with validation and compassion for our emotions, instead of judgment, criticism and avoidance.

All of this applied before we ever heard of Covid-19, now let’s add a worldwide pandemic!

So yes, anxiety can be an appropriate response. How we respond to anxiety though is crucial. Many people will respond by trying to control it, wish it away, fear it, rationalize it. All understandable responses, I’ve tried them myself, but they unfortunately only magnify anxiety. There’s a saying “what you resist, persists” and that is very true of anxiety. So the key lies in being able to acknowledge, accept and release whatever you are feeling.

Regardless of whether the anxiety you feel is diagnosable as a disorder or not, it is helpful to develop positive coping skills to manage it. Like all emotions, once you allow and express it, it will dissipate. Then you can implement the tools that work best for you to reduce your stress and manage your emotions.

If you, or a loved one, could use some help managing feelings of anxiety, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Be well.

Kathy Most
Therapist in Westfield, NJ
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