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

Dr. Michael J. Mufson, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

At some time, most of us feel afraid, tense, or even anxious enough to become short of breath. The difference is that people who don't have anxiety disorders experience these reactions in response to genuine threats. When a fire is raging in the house next door, for example, anxiety can be a lifesaver, spurring an individual to flee the area near the burning building. But people with anxiety disorders face worry and fear in ordinary, relatively harmless situations. While tapping the keyboard of a computer, let's say, they may fear contracting a life-threatening disease (a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder). They may be gripped by worry nearly every day about getting into a car accident, losing their job, having their children do poorly in school, or other possible but unlikely prospects (a sign of generalized anxiety disorder). People with anxiety disorders are hypersensitive to the possibility of danger. Yet their extreme vigilance serves no purpose. They are spinning their neurobiological wheels, so to speak.

Dr. Todd Farchione, PhD
Psychology Specialist

The difference between regular anxiety and an anxiety disorder is the extent to which the problem is interfering with life or causing distress. Watch as psychologist Todd Farchione, PhD, explains how regular anxiety and an anxiety disorder differ.

Regular anxiety and an anxiety disorder are different conditions. Many people have, at one time or another, felt anxious. Financial or work demands can cause people stress. However, when these feelings negatively affect (for long periods of time) how people think, and how they handle daily activities, such as working, sleeping and eating, the symptoms may be due to an anxiety disorder or depression. Both of these conditions can result in severe impairments that interfere with or limit people's ability to live their whole life.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.