You lie awake in bed, restless and tense. Your thoughts are circling your mind a mile a minute, and it’s not long before your heart rate seems to start moving just as quickly. When all you can feel is the pounding in your chest, you know that you’re in for another night of sleeplessness — another morning where you can’t concentrate on work because your worries have consumed your focus.

Is this stress? You wonder. Anxiety triggered by stress? I’ve always tended to worry too often, so maybe it’s my personality, and I’m just having a moment. Or maybe this is deep-seated anxiety — a disorder, even — now coming to light. I suppose I am going through a few life changes right now. Either way, I sure wish I could tone these feelings down. I’ll do what I can to get by for now, but at what point is it okay to ask for help if I ever feel like I can’t anymore?

Understanding anxiety

The good news is that anxiety is not only helpful at times, but everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. However, it can be incredibly challenging to understand the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. In terms of symptoms, anxiety can look a lot like generalized anxiety disorder.

For instance, one might feel nervous in anticipation of an event, such as their first day at a new job or moving to a new city. Anxiety can occur even in favorable situations, and it can also be helpful with keeping you alert in stressful or dangerous ones.

Someone experiencing temporary anxiety can control their racing thoughts or symptoms to some degree; or at least their physical response feels proportionate to what is making them anxious. Also, a person with anxious feelings will be able to relax once a situation has passed. For instance, once they get acquainted with their new job or city, they begin to feel more at ease.

Anxiety vs. anxiety disorder: how to tell the difference

Anxiety is often a part of life, but when it starts dictating how you feel and act daily, that’s when it could be problematic. In other words, when it impairs your ability to function normally in everyday life.

When someone has an anxiety disorder, it can mean they’re experiencing anxiety every day without any real or major reason to be anxious. They tend to experience more intense worry about minor, daily matters that most people can cope with without thoughts or physical symptoms spiraling out of control.

One telltale sign of “abnormal” anxiety is the anticipation of potential outcomes when facing uncertainty. Uncertainty is a part of life, but someone with an anxiety disorder will feel persistently and excessively stressed, nervous, or worried. In other words, their anxiety is out of proportion to what’s happening, if anything even is.

In some cases, individuals with an anxiety disorder will avoid situations that worsen their symptoms, impacting them even more in the long run.

Finally, one criterion for clinical anxiety includes worries that occur more often than not for at least six months. That said, the duration of your anxious feelings isn’t everything when it comes to diagnosing an anxiety disorder. No matter what you think you have, know that it is always okay to ask for help.

A therapist is a tremendous resource for helping you better understand what you could be going through. If your anxious feelings begin to feel like more than you can handle, it’s important to talk to someone about these feelings and find ways to cope no matter how long it’s been.

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