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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » Demystifying Anxiety: Differentiating Between Normal Worry and Disorder

Demystifying Anxiety: Differentiating Between Normal Worry and Disorder

According to Mental Health UK, a little over 1 in 10 of us will be living with an anxiety disorder at any one time. Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and the number of people who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing. 

Normal Worry vs. Anxiety Disorder

Normal worry and anxiety disorder exist on a spectrum, and the difference between them is often based on the intensity, duration and impact on daily life. Everybody worries about things and this is usually a normal part of daily life. Worry and even anxiety to some degree are natural responses to stressors. Normal levels of anxiety may present as low levels of fear or apprehension, you may experience mild sensations of muscle tightness and sweating, or have doubts about your ability to complete a task. Symptoms of normal anxiety do not negatively interfere with daily functioning. 

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, a feeling of worry or fear that can range from being mild to severe. Anxiety is usually experienced as a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings. Anxiety can feel like you are constantly worrying about things, have a sense of dread and you may have difficulty concentrating.

Anxiety isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in moderation as it can help us to remain alert, make us aware of risks and motivate us to solve problems. However, anxiety can be a problem if it affects your ability to live your day-to-day life. If anxiety is ongoing, intense, difficult to control or out of proportion to your situation, it can be a sign of a mental health problem.

Signs that you are experiencing normal worries include:

  • Having mild to moderate concern about specific, realistic issues. It is usually a temporary feeling and resolves as the situation improves or as you adapt to the situation.
  • The worries are short term and related to specific events or concerns.
  • The worries are typically triggered by real-life stressors or specific events.
  • The worries usually do not significantly impair your daily functioning. You can still carry out your responsibilities and engage in regular activities that you enjoy.
  • You may experience mild physical symptoms like restlessness, tension, or mild stomach discomfort.

Normal worry is usually managed through coping strategies, problem-solving and social support. Professional help is usually not necessary.

Symptoms of anxiety disorder will be different and may include:

  • Excessive, intense and persistent worry that is not proportionate to the actual threat or situation.
  • It may feel difficult to control.
  • It will often interfere with your daily activities, work and relationships, and affect your overall quality of life.
  • It may lead to avoidance of certain situations or activities.
  • It will usually be persistent and chronic, lasting for six months or more.
  • The feeling of worry may be present even when there is no immediate cause for concern.
  • Feelings of dread, panic or ‘impending doom’.
  • Uncontrollable overthinking.
  • Changes in appetite over a prolonged period of time.
  • Dissociation, which is feeling like you aren’t connected to your own body, watching things happen around you without really feeling it.
  • It may not have an obvious trigger, or the trigger may be disproportionate to the situation and the level of anxiety experienced.
  • You may experience intense physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, nausea, sweating, trembling, and difficulty concentrating.
  • It may affect your ability to sleep.

It will often require professional intervention, such as therapy or medication, to manage the symptoms effectively.

If you have an anxiety disorder, you may experience panic attacks. A panic attack is defined as “a sudden period of severe anxiety in which your heart beats fast, you have trouble breathing and you feel as if something very bad is going to happen.” The symptoms of a panic attack can be similar to those of a heart attack, including tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing.

Anxiety disorders can affect adults and children. In the UK, nearly 300,000 young people have an anxiety disorder. The condition is estimated to affect 5-19% of all children and adolescents and about 2-5% of children who are younger than 12 years old. Separation anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder in children younger than 12.

Demistifying anxiety

Common Worries and Stressors

Stressors in everyday life vary from person to person depending upon individual circumstances. Some common stressors include:

  • Financial concerns – money issues, such as debts, unexpected expenses and being unable to afford daily living costs, can be significant stressors for many people.
  • Work-related stress – being under pressure to meet deadlines, having too much work, working in an unsupportive environment, conflicts with colleagues, or job insecurity can all contribute to work-related stress.
  • Health issues – worries about personal health issues or the health issues of loved ones can be a major source of stress for people. For further reading about the connection between physical and mental health, please see our knowledge base.
  • Problems in relationships – conflicts with family members, friends or partners can lead to stress and emotional upset.
  • Having multiple responsibilities – this can lead to feelings of overwhelm.
  • Dealing with uncertainty – facing uncertainty about the future or dealing with significant life changes, such as moving house, having a baby, starting a new job, or going through a major life transition, can be stressful.
  • Being overloaded with information – the constant influx of information through technology and media can overwhelm people, leading to feelings of stress.

Normal Stress Responses

Everybody has a different tolerance to stress. Some people can feel easily triggered and cannot cope as well with stress as other people. Normal stress responses are the body’s natural reactions to stressors. Some stress is a normal and necessary part of life, and the body has evolved to respond to stress in various ways. Some common, normal stress responses include:

  • An increased heart rate and blood pressure – when you are stressed, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to a temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This prepares the body to respond quickly to a perceived threat.
  • Rapid breathing – this happens in order to supply the body with more oxygen, designed to support increased physical activity during a stressful situation.
  • Tense muscles – the muscles may tense up as part of the body’s preparation for physical action. This can result in an increased level of strength and alertness.
  • Increased sweating – the body may sweat more as a way of regulating body temperature during increased physical activity.
  • Suppressed immune system – in the short term, stress can suppress the immune system, redirecting resources to address immediate threats. In cases of chronic stress this can have negative long-term effects on immune function.
  • Emotional responses – stress can evoke a range of emotional responses, including anxiety, fear, anger or sadness.

While these are all normal responses to stress, persistent or chronic stress can be detrimental to your overall health and well-being. It is important to keep stress levels to a minimum wherever possible.

Recognising Signs of Anxiety Disorder

Everybody experiences anxiety from time to time; however, it is important to be able to recognise the signs of anxiety disorder. Some common signs may include:

  • Restlessness – being unable to relax, feeling on edge, or being easily startled.
  • Fatigue – feeling tired despite getting enough rest.
  • Tension in the muscles – persistent muscle tension, especially in the neck, shoulders and jaw.
  • Sleep disturbances – difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restless sleep.
  • Sweating – excessive sweating or cold, clammy hands.
  • Trembling – shaking or trembling uncontrollably.
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal issues – stomach aches, nausea, diarrhoea, or other digestive problems.
  • Excessively worrying – constantly and excessively worrying about everyday events or situations.
  • Irritability – feeling easily annoyed or irritated.
  • Difficulty concentrating – having difficulty focusing.
  • Worrying about the future – persistent fear or apprehension about the future, including what may or may not happen.
  • Avoidance – avoiding certain situations or places due to having fear or anxiety.
  • Panic attacks – sudden and intense episodes of fear or terror, which can be accompanied by physical symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, or feeling dizzy.
  • Perfectionism – this can include setting extremely high standards for yourself and being overly self-critical.
  • Experiencing social isolation – withdrawing from social activities or avoiding social situations altogether.
  • Having difficulty with relationships – you may be struggling to maintain healthy relationships due to feelings of anxiety.
  • Feeling excessively self-consciousness – being overly concerned about how you are being perceived by others.
Differentiating between normal worry and disorder

Impact on Daily Life

Living with anxiety disorder can significantly impact on daily life, particularly if you are not receiving the appropriate support. Some of the ways it can impact on daily life include:

  • Causing unpleasant physical symptoms.
  • Creating problems socially.
  • Preventing you from fulfilling your daily responsibilities.
  • Preventing you from achieving at school or work.
  • Impacting on your physical health.
  • Impacting on your relationships.

Seeking Professional Help

If you feel that you have symptoms of anxiety disorder or if you are struggling with your mental health at all, you should see your GP. 

If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the NHS may offer you self-help methods, talking therapies or medication. 

Therapies include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – CBT is a type of talking therapy that helps you to understand the link between your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It can help you to find ways to overcome your anxiety by challenging your negative thought patterns and beliefs. CBT is evidence-based and has been found to be effective for many mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Exposure therapy – this type of therapy is particularly useful for someone who has specific phobias and certain types of anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy involves gradually facing and confronting the phobia, allowing people to become less sensitive to whatever is causing anxiety.
  • Mindfulness-based therapies – mindfulness-based approaches, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), teach people to be present in the moment and develop a non-judgemental awareness. These techniques can be beneficial for managing anxiety. When we become more aware of the present moment, this can help us to enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves and other people better. When we become more aware of the present moment, we can sometimes appreciate things that we were taking for granted and find beauty in everyday experiences.

You may also be offered medication to help manage your anxiety. Some common medications for anxiety include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – these are antidepressants which are used to treat anxiety. Sertraline is the most commonly used to treat anxiety.
  • Beta-blockers – these can help with the physical signs of anxiety. They can help to lower a fast heartbeat and reduce shaking.
  • Benzodiazepines – these should only be prescribed if your anxiety is extreme or if you are in crisis as they are addictive and they become less effective if they are used long term.

Some useful contacts if you are struggling with anxiety are:

Coping Strategies

Living with anxiety may mean that you have to find ways to help you cope on a daily basis. You may need to seek support from a professional and in some cases you may need to take medication. There are, however, some things that you can try yourself in order to help you cope. These include:

  • Deep breathing and relaxation techniques – practising deep breathing exercises can help to calm your nervous system.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery exercises can help to relax your body and mind.
  • Regular physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety. There is a lot of research linking physical activity to positive mental health outcomes. Choose activities you enjoy doing, such as walking, jogging, yoga or dancing.
  • Yoga and tai chi – both have been found to be effective in promoting mental well-being. They promote relaxation, stress reduction, improved sleep and can be good for social connections.
  • Mindfulness and meditation – mindfulness is a type of meditation that helps you to be intensely aware of your senses and the feeling of being present in the moment without judgement. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is going on inside our bodies and in our immediate environment, moment by moment. An important aspect of mindfulness is about reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations we experience. This means being aware of what we can see and touch and the sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment.
  • Maintaining a balanced and healthy diet – there is a clear link between diet and mental health. Some studies have compared traditional diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical Western diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet. Scientists believe this to be the case because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They also do not contain processed and refined foods and sugars.
  • Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake – caffeine and alcohol can contribute to anxiety.
  • Identify and challenge irrational or negative thoughts – consider keeping a journal to track and reframe anxious thoughts.
  • Limit your exposure to stressors – identify and minimise exposure to your triggers and things that contribute to your anxiety. Set necessary boundaries in order to protect your mental well-being.
  • Getting enough sleep – the quality and amount of sleep we get directly impacts on our mental health. With good quality and adequate sleep, people generally have better mental well-being.
Normal worry and disorder

Reducing Stigma

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma associated with mental health and this can prevent people from being open about their struggles and accessing the support they need. Stigma, in the context of mental health, refers to the negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes that society holds about people with mental health difficulties. Reducing the stigma associated with mental health requires a collective effort from individuals, communities and institutions. Some things to consider include:

  • Educating and increasing awareness – we can do this by encouraging open discussions in schools, workplaces and communities in order to increase awareness and understanding.
  • Using respectful and non-stigmatising language when discussing mental health – we can do this by avoiding derogatory terms and stereotypes that can drive negative attitudes.
  • Having supportive policies in place – advocate for mental health-friendly policies in workplaces and institutions. This can be done by promoting workplace initiatives that support mental health, including having flexible schedules, promoting a good work-life balance and having mental health days.
  • Ensuring that mental health is seen as being as important as physical health – we can do this by encouraging the integration of mental health into overall health discussions.
  • Training and education for professionals in various settings – we can do this by providing mental health training for professionals in various fields. It is important that professionals are equipped to handle mental health discussions with sensitivity and empathy.
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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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