The Difference Between Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

The term "anxiety disorder" is often shortened to simply "anxiety." But this is misleading, making you think there is something wrong with any type of anxiety.

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, anxiety is a fear or nervousness about what might happen or a feeling of wanting to do something very much. Anxiety is a normal reaction to a stressful situation. You might feel anxiety when walking down a dark street alone, right before a major test, when you hear that lay-offs are about to happen at your job. Anxiety is when your fight or flight response is activated and in many cases, this is an appropriate response. It helps you stay more alert, become more aware of your surroundings and gets your body ready to fight or flee. Your heart rate increases, your adrenaline starts pumping.
It readies you to solve a problem -whether it be to stay and face your adversary or to run away.

But sometimes, this fight-or-flight response triggers when it isn't necessary or stays activated way past when the danger is gone. Some experts consider an anxiety disorder a malfunctioning fight-or-flight response. You might worry needlessly about a test, even though you have studied and are prepared. You might worry about losing your job, even though everything is going well at work. You might panic when you see a dog walking down the street, even though someone is walking with the dog. You might panic when you go to the mall or drive a car. When your reaction, your anxiety levels, do not match the situation, then your fight-or-flight response "malfunctions."

It is your level of anxiety and whether it matches the situation that makes the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Suppose you have an upcoming presentation to make. You are probably nervous and might have butterflies in your stomach. This feeling helps you practice your presentation. It might help you do a better job than if you simply didn't care. This is a normal response. But, if you are sick to your stomach, have a headache, feel like you can't breathe and can't think about anything but the upcoming presentation, maybe spend days or weeks worrying about it, then the response is probably no longer helpful. Instead, the feelings of anxiety might prevent you from doing a good job or stop you from even giving the presentation.

When Should You See a Doctor?

If you aren't sure whether your anxiety levels reach the level of anxiety disorder, a good rule of thumb is if worrying and anxiety levels interfere with your daily life, it is time to talk with your doctor. But, if you experience the following, even if you can function and make it through the day, you might benefit from talking to your doctor:

  • You worry, feel anxious or are experiencing panic attacks on a regular basis

  • You can't seem to manage your anxiety on your own

  • Your feelings of anxiety are interfering with your relationships

  • You have tried methods such as meditation, exercise or yoga to help calm your anxiety but your anxiety levels are still high

If you are uncomfortable with your level of anxiety, talk to your doctor. There are effective treatments for anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you reframe your thoughts, has been found to be effective. There is also medication, however, this doesn't "cure" your anxiety. Many doctors recommend that medication be used in conjunction with CBT.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.