Do I have ‘Normal’ Anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety is a general, unpleasant feeling of apprehension. You feel restless and you may have physical reactions such as a headache, sweating, heart palpitations, chest tightness, and upset stomach. When is anxiety normal and when is it an anxiety disorder?

There are a number of human experiences that cause normal anxiety. Life offers us many anxiety-provoking experiences. As we journey through life, there are many important life events, both good and bad, that cause varying amounts of anxiety.

These events can include things such as, taking a school exam, getting married, becoming a parent, getting divorced, changing jobs, taking a vacation, coping with illness and many others. These can all be sources of normal anxiety.

The discomfort anxiety brings in all of these situations is considered normal and even beneficial. Anxiety about an upcoming test may cause you to work harder in preparing for the exam. The anxiety you feel when walking through a dark and deserted parking lot to your car will cause you to be alert and cautious of your surroundings.

While it’s pretty clear to see that anxiety is normal and even beneficial, for many people it becomes a problem. The main difference between normal anxiety and maladaptive anxiety is between the source and the intensity of the experience.

Normal anxiety is intermittent and is expected based on certain events or situations. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, tends to be chronic, irrational and interferes with many life functions. Avoidance behavior, incessant worry, and concentration and memory problems may all stem from an anxiety disorder. These symptoms may be so intense that they cause family, work, and social difficulties.

The components of maladaptive anxiety include the physical responses to the anxiety (such as heart palpitations and stomach upset), distorted thoughts that become a source of excessive worry and behavioral changes affecting the usual way one lives life and interacts with others.

The definition of generalized anxiety disorder is “The presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition published by the American Psychiatric Association.