Feeling nervous is a natural — though certainly unpleasant — human emotion that we all experience from time to time. Although some people are more prone to nervousness than others, everyone has dealt with that pit in their stomach before a job interview, a first date, or an important test. But while the words “nervous” and “anxious” are often used interchangeably, there’s a big difference between feeling nervous and having an anxiety disorder.
“Feeling nervous is different than feeling anxious in terms of intensity, frequency, and focus,” Sharon Saline, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author, told POPSUGAR. She explained that nervousness is similar to anxiety in the sense that it’s experienced both cognitively and physically, but that’s about where the similarities end.
Nervousness is a temporary feeling of insecurity that’s “related to specific concerns about a new or stressful situation,” Dr. Saline said. Typically, these concerns go away once you’ve safely navigated the task or situation at hand. For example, “you’ll feel nervous with a flutter in your stomach or some perspiration about doing something like getting a flu shot or going to a party with new friends, but you’ll do these things anyway,” Dr. Saline said. On the other hand, people with anxiety may avoid things that make them uncomfortable — and even if they do successfully overcome their fears, that often does nothing to prevent them from feeling anxious the next time.
Anxiety disorders are debilitating and persistent in that way, Dr. Saline explained. They’re characterized by negative expectations and an inability to tolerate uncertainty. And while anxiety can be help protect us from danger, for people with an anxiety disorder, “sometimes there can be episodes of fear or worry in the absence of a genuine threat,” Dr Saline said. “Whether it’s a true emergency or a false alarm, anxiety disorders distort your perceptions and create uncomfortable bodily states, including racing heart rate and shortness of breath.”
When to Seek Help For Your Anxiety
Carla Marie Manly, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author, explained that in order to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a person must experience excessive feelings of anxiety during most days for a period of at least six months. Three additional symptoms, such as irritability, sleep disturbance, restlessness, fatigue, and trouble concentrating, must also be present.
“The individual must find it difficult to control the anxiety and worry,” Dr. Manly told POPSUGAR. “When the symptoms cause significant psychological distress or cause impairment in normal daily functioning (such as work or personal relationships), a formal diagnosis is made.”
She added that other common anxiety disorders are social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. If you have anxiety that interferes with your daily life or your ability to function, talk to your doctor or make an appointment with a therapist. With a proper diagnosis, anxiety is treatable, most often through therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.