Ken Goodman L.C.S.W.

Anxiety and OCD Therapy, Coaching, and Self-Help

What’s the Difference Between an Anxiety Disorder and Anxiety?

You push the button for the fourth floor, the elevator door closes but the elevator doesn’t move. You push the button again…nothing happens. You push the button to open the elevator but the doors remain closed. How do you feel? What do you do? In the future, if you choose to take stairs and avoid elevators, does it mean you have an anxiety disorder?

Everyone has anxiety. It’s part of the normal human experience. It’s completely natural to feel anxious when faced with a stressor. In fact, a certain amount of anxiety can be helpful. Anxiety can protect us from danger. It can cause us to study harder for a big test or prepare more thoroughly for an important presentation.

The difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder, is that an anxiety disorder:

  • Causes intense distress that can’t be tolerated
  • Causes an intolerance of uncertainty resulting in misperceptions of danger
  • Results in avoidant or self-destructive behaviors
  • Affects the quality of life
  • Impacts the ability to function well in certain areas of life.

Anxiety disorders can affect your entire being: psychologically, behaviorally, and physiologically. Let’s begin with the psychological effects.

How Anxiety Affects The Mind

There are many psychological symptoms of anxiety. One of the most common is excessive worrying — when you anticipate the worst and dwell on it, thinking about it over and over.

Other psychological symptoms include:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Intrusive memories of a past trauma
  • Perfectionism
  • Caring too much about what other people think

In addition, people with anxiety disorders often perceive danger or a problem when there is none, and then react with intense emotion — fear, anger, doom, and depression.

How Anxiety Affects Behavior

Anxiety disorders not only affect you psychologically, they also affect your behavior. The most common behavior is avoidance. You avoid what makes you anxious: driving on freeways, visiting the dentist, interacting with people, or trying something new.

People with anxiety avoid uncertain situations for fear of becoming anxious or embarrassed. They need to locate the exits so they can get out quickly. Rather than risk uncertainty, anxiety and embarrassment, it’s easier to avoid the situation all together.

Other common avoidant behaviors:

  • Procrastination
  • Social withdrawal
  • Compulsions (repetitive checking or cleaning)
  • Drinking alcohol to relax

How Anxiety Affects The Body

Acute and chronic anxiety can also take a toll the body. This includes both how the body immediately reacts when faced with an anxious situation as well as the body’s reaction to on-going stress over time.

Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Racing heart, pressure in chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Tremors, shaking
  • Sweating, blushing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia

Over time, stress and anxiety can contribute to a variety of medical conditions: Ulcers, high blood pressure, skin conditions, headaches, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome can all be caused or made worse by anxiety and stress. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in the body, including the immune system and the heart.

It’s not necessary to have all or most of these symptoms to have an anxiety disorder. Sometimes anxiety manifests itself as agitation or anger, over-thinking and excessive worry, or merely a general feeling of nervousness. That may be all it takes to cause you to avoid certain situations or endure the anxiety while you force yourself through it.

Anxiety is a common human experience. It can help protect us from danger and even motivate us to do better. But when anxiety becomes so severe it impacts your quality of life, limits your freedom and effects your relationships and work, this may be a sign of an anxiety disorder requiring professional help. The good news?

Anxiety disorders can be overcome and you can live a happier, more fulfilling life, free from overwhelming anxiety and fear.