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Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorders: What's the Difference?

Anne is a freelancer with a passion for writing and helping others by writing about important topics and issues.

Anxiety Vs. Anxiety Disorders



Anxiety is a common human reaction and emotion that everyone experiences at some point in time. Stress and environmental factors often play a critical role in anxiety and how we deal with it. However, when anxiety is persistent and not necessarily specific to a few situations, it can become a disorder. While a lot of people throw around the term anxiety loosely, it is often misunderstood in relation to how it relates to mental health. Just as everyone can experience sadness and depression from time to time, so can people experience anxiety. Therefore, the symptoms and causes of anxiety and anxiety disorders are very similar. The difference usually lies in the trigger for the anxiety, how often the anxiety is experienced, and how persistent it becomes in a person’s life. When anxiety or any mental health issue becomes unmanageable, that is usually when you should consider reaching out to a mental health professional to determine whether or not it is an illness, disorder, or just a natural part of your life based on external factors.

When Does It Become a Disorder?

In order for a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, certain symptoms need to be present, and depending on those symptoms, a person may be diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that “when feelings of intense fear or distress are overwhelming and prevent us from doing everyday things, an anxiety disorder may be the cause.” This must be certain in order to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In addition, a specific number of symptoms and timelines must be present in order to receive a diagnosis. These symptoms are outlines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM). If a person does not meet those criteria, they are not labeled as having an anxiety disorder.

To give you an example, if someone is occasionally anxious when going to the grocery store because of large crowds, but is able to do their grocery shopping, go home, and continue their normal activities, this situation may not be characterized as an anxiety disorder. Although they may get anxious in that environment, if they are able to carry out their normal life needs during that short period of anxiety, it’s not labeled as a disorder. A disorder is something that makes it too difficult to tolerate. For instance, someone with social anxiety disorder may avoid going to the grocery store altogether, as well as avoiding social situations. Their self-isolation makes their relationships strained and makes it difficult for them to complete simple and necessary tasks when they require that the person go out in public and communicate with others. This is what makes anxiety and an anxiety disorder different. The resilience of the human mind is remarkable, and many folks are able to live their lives with anxiety in certain circumstances and situations and not let it take control of their lives. When an anxiety crosses the bridge between being a temporary and fleeting feeling to something that lingers and is persistent, then it becomes a problem.


Excessive worry about real or perceived danger is a common symptom of anxiety.

Excessive worry about real or perceived danger is a common symptom of anxiety.

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Many anxiety disorders have different symptoms specific to the type of disorder, however, most anxiety disorders have a list of general symptoms that are present in all. These include feelings of fear, tenseness, irritability, negative self-talk, and being especially cautious in inappropriate or unnecessary situations. For instance, a person that is fearful of being watched by others may always be looking around to see who may be watching them, even in the most bizarre settings. Often, these kinds of anxieties lead to delusions that people are “out to get you” and could just be a minor symptom of a larger mental disorder. People with agoraphobia are extremely frightened of leaving their homes, so they spend much time and effort “protecting” their space and making it secure at home. You often hear about people locking their doors and maybe even boarding up their windows in fear that someone is watching them. They may not even take a step outside of their home to grab the morning paper or mail if the disorder is severe enough. The general symptoms of anxiety disorders follow a pattern, and the differentiation between disorders explains how those symptoms play into the more specific anxiety the person may be experiencing.

Additionally, all types of anxiety tend to show common physical symptoms including a racing heart, sweating, gastrointestinal issues such as queasiness or an upset stomach, headaches, insomnia, and fatigue. Stressors in our lives typically will cause physical symptoms like these, but for someone with an anxiety disorder, these symptoms can be magnified or persistent. The person who is nervous when speaking in front of a crowd may have shaking hands and sweat a little, but after the initial nerves have settled, they are able to make their speech and continue on. This is not the case of someone with a true anxiety disorder. The pain of the physical symptoms could be almost unbearable to the point that the person may not even show up for the crowd to give their speech. As stated previously, the persistence and intensity of anxiety determines whether or not a person may truly have an anxiety disorder.

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Social Anxiety

Persons with social anxiety may have intense feelings of dread when in large crowds or social situations.

Persons with social anxiety may have intense feelings of dread when in large crowds or social situations.

Similarities and Differences in Anxiety Disorders

There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders, some very general, and others super specific to a situation or trigger. The most common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias. Phobias are typically hyper-specific to what the trigger for anxiety is, making this a unique disorder in itself. A phobia is simply a person, place, thing, and/or situation that may be a trigger for someone for whatever reason. The phobia is the thing they are fearful of, and therefore the trigger for their anxiety. Disorders like generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder may have no known trigger or cause, which can make it extremely difficult to diagnose and treat. In these cases, a panic attack, or a feeling of intense fear and danger accompanied by intense physical symptoms may come on for no reason at all to a person. This can be absolutely terrifying for the person suffering. When the “fight or flight” response in the brain is activated, we tend to go in survival mode. The neurotransmitter responsible for this reaction is adrenaline. GABA, on the other hand, is a neurotransmitter responsible for calming and relaxing the body. Persons that have an anxiety disorder may have lower levels of GABA, therefore leading to more anxiety. The neurotransmitters adrenaline and GABA play a role in how and why we get anxiety, and those with anxiety disorders may have an improper functioning or absence of functioning in these areas of the brain.

Treatments for Anxiety Disorders

Most anxiety disorders are treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Because we know that adrenaline and GABA receptors are involved in how the body acts and reacts in anxiety-provoking situations, anti-anxiety medications and antidepressant medications focus on the regulation of these chemicals in the brain. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a form of therapy typically used with patients dealing with anxiety disorders because it helps the person reflect and combat their intense feelings of anxiety by learning important coping skills as well as signs of triggers. Suggested treatments also may include relaxation exercises, such as meditation, breathing exercises, and other forms of relaxation that may help lessen the symptoms of panic and anxiety.

Physical Reaction to Stress

Adrenaline is the neurotransmitter in the body responsible for our "fight or flight" response to danger. Persons with anxiety disorders tend to overuse this chemical in the body, leading to many physical anxiety symptoms in the body.

Adrenaline is the neurotransmitter in the body responsible for our "fight or flight" response to danger. Persons with anxiety disorders tend to overuse this chemical in the body, leading to many physical anxiety symptoms in the body.


Anxiety disorders are a common mental illness that affect many people across the world every year. Although the feeling of anxiety is a common emotion and response in the human body, anxiety disorders are differentiated by the persistence of symptoms as well as the causes and triggers for symptoms with anxiety. Persons may be able to explain triggers if they have phobias or situational anxieties, but some people do not understand why they are anxious, leading to frightening panic attacks of unknown origin that are difficult to treat. Although anxiety seems like a simple concept, it is more complex in the mental health field. Persons being treated for anxiety disorders most often benefit from multiple treatments, including medication and therapy. If you or someone you know may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, reach out to a doctor or trusted health care professional immediately. You can get help, and help is out there, remember that.


“Anxiety Disorders.” NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mar. 2015,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Anne Marie Carr

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