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What is the difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder?

By February 23, 2009 - 11:07am
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I am hoping to understand more the line between regular worry/anxiety and an actual anxiety disorder. While I have always been a worrier -- I can remember worrying about things as a small child -- it seems as though it's

getting more prevalent in my life. Specifically, I keep worrying about bad things happening to people I love. I'm just wondering at what level a person should realize that it's more than typical and seek treatment for it.

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When I worked with professional psychologists and psychiatrists, there were often two key factors they repeated when asked by a patient if they have a "diagnosable condition" or not:

1) Interference: Are your symptoms of (fill in the blank) interfering with your daily life?
2) Duration: Is your excessive worry, occurring more days than not, for a least six months?

This is a simplified answer to your complex question, and here are some other signs and symptoms that would indicate an anxiety disorder:

Are your symptoms:
- effecting your sleep, work, relationships or other aspects of life?
- causing you problems in concentrating?
- causing you to be irritable and restless?

If you answered "no" for most of these questions, and think that you are bothered by your symptoms (without a condition), you have a few options:
1) Ask a professional counselor or psychologist for an evaluation; it never hurts to talk with someone about these issues, even if you find out you are "only stressed" without a diagnosable condition.
2) Learn some techniques to manage your excessive worry and preoccupation. Are you worried about one thing that may or may not happen in the future, of which you have no control over if it did happen (for instance, something happening to people you love, as you mentioned)?

Techniques to lessen the worry:
- Mindful meditation (informal type of meditation)
- Formal meditation
- Physical activity
- Journaling and writing "What if"
- Doing things you love/enjoy

Have you tried any of these techniques?
- Meditation can be helpful in practicing "being present" and focusing on only those things that you can control in your life. It is essentially a workout for your brain! I can provide more information on mindful meditation if you are interested.
- Physical activity can help release some more "feel good" natural chemicals through your body, along with numerous other benefits.
- Journaling and "what if". This is difficult, but I did it. As a new mom, I was constantly running through gruesome scenarios in my mind about "what if" situations involving my new baby that included kidnapping, burglary, house fire...you name it. One of my close psychologist friends told me that this is actually a GOOD thing (to some degree); my mind is practicing running through scenarios to prepare me. But, after a while, I need to tell my brain "enough!". She told me to give my brain permission, and a set amount of time during the day (not before bed), to go through the "what if" scenarios...only thing is...I needed to follow it all the way through. What if something bad happened to my little baby? What would I do? Once I realized that my fear was very specific (2nd story house, no ladder for escape out of window), that was something I could control. We can't control for every disaster or accident, but thinking and writing down fears helps put them in perspective, and doesn't make them as scary. There may be nothing I can do about a burglar or kidnapping, and I have to realize those are situations that happen in life, and I can protect my family to a point, then need to concentrate on things that I can control and enjoy. I won't be really living life now, if I'm worried that something bad will happen in the future. If you are not able to do this, it might be helpful to talk it through with a professional, and they can provide more strategies.
- Do things you enjoy that lessen stress and make you happy. I had to STOP, cold turkey, 100%, from reading any stories about kidnapping, fires, etc. Which means, I can't watch the TV news (I can select stories online to keep up with current events). I can't watch "scary" movies. I wasn't enjoying these, as they were playing on my fears and exaggerating them.

Does any of this information help?

February 24, 2009 - 2:44pm
HERWriter Guide

Hi Patti

Thanks for the question - it's a really good one!

Firstly, anxiety is not only normal - it's healthy and needed at times. Anxiety warns us that something may be wrong and it prepares us for a flight or fight response. Without anxiety, we'd be in trouble.

An anxiety disorder, obviously, is not healthy. This is when someone is unreasonably anxious and when someone finds themselves focused on problems and issues that have no real basis in reality. It's also there almost constantly.

Normal anxiety is situational. For example, if your child fell into a pool face first and nearly drowned, it will be normal for you to be very anxious when your child is around water. That could go on for years. There is a legitimate basis for the anxiety but it's intermittent; it only happens when your child is around water. An anxiety disorder is less rational. There may be no reason why you worry over accidents, disease, losing a job, a home or a relationship.

Are you worrying every day? Is there an actual basis for the worry? Is someone is your family unwell or has a history of illness? Has someone had a recent car accident? If so, your anxiety might have legitimacy. If not, you may be facing an anxiety disorder.

There is a disorder called General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)and it is described as an "anxiety disorder characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it." (the National institute of Mental Health). There are great treatments available for this disorder and it is quite common!

For more information on GAD, click here: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml

Does this sound familiar to you? Is this what you are experiencing?

February 23, 2009 - 1:48pm
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