What’s the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder?

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Anxiety is a normal reaction to many different kinds of events and situations in our lives. Anxiety is one of our internal warning systems that alerts us to danger or other threats and prepares our bodies to fight back or get out of a dangerous situation. (Scientists call this the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.)

A manageable amount of anxiety from time to time can be helpful. For example, it can motivate you to prepare for a test a school or finish a task at work. Even happy events like moving to a new home or celebrating an important milestone can bring up anxiety—all of this is just part of being human.

Anxiety is a problem when it becomes overwhelming or unmanageable and it comes up unexpectedly. Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that have a big impact your life. People may avoid going about their daily lives in order to avoid anxiety. They may experience a lot of uncomfortable physical sensations and physical health problems. Many people say that they know their anxiety isn’t based in reality, but they feel ‘trapped’ by their thought and feelings. Anxiety disorders can be treated. It’s important to seek help if you’re concerned about anxiety in your life.

Normal anxiety...

  • Is related to a specific situation or problem

  • Lasts only as long as the situation or problem/p>

  • Is proportional to the situation or problem/p>

  • Is a realistic response to a realistic problem or situation/p>

When someone experiences an anxiety disorder...

  • Anxiety may come up unexpectedly, for seemingly no reason

  • The anxiety response to a situation or problem may be much stronger that they would expect

  • They may experience a lot of unrealistic anxiety, such as fear of a situation that likely will never happen

  • Anxiety may last for a long time, even when the situation or problem has been resolved

  • Anxiety may feel impossible to control or manage

  • They may avoid situations or things that they believe to trigger anxiety symptoms

Here’s an example of normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Many people are a bit nervous about flying, which is a totally normal reaction. Yet, if they have to travel for work, they can can get on a plane without any problems. Someone with an anxiety disorder, on the other hand, may not be able to travel to the airport—even if it puts their job in jeopardy.

Find fact sheets on different anxiety disorders

*Formerly classified as an anxiety disorder and currently classified as Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders

**Formerly classified as an anxiety disorder and currently classified as Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders

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