According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US, affecting 18.1% of the US population each year.
Although worry is a defining trait of anxiety, not everyone who worries suffers from an anxiety disorder. This can make the difference between the two confusing, psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC told INSIDER.
So how can you know if you’re worrying an everyday amount or suffering from an anxiety disorder? INSIDER spoke to experts to learn how to spot the difference.
Anxiety is made up of a cluster of worries.
Dr. John Mayer, the clinical physiologist at Doctor On Demand, defined “worry” as an “apprehensive expectation,” something identifiable that you feel uneasy about.
“Worry is typically focused on one target, whereas anxiety is all-encompassing – you worry about many things and for much of the day – for example, I am walking home alone late at night and I might get mugged,” Mayer told INSIDER.
Anxiety’s root cause, Mayer added, is “often not identifiable, and therefore more frightening whereas worry we can typically identify the focus of our worry.”
Worry and anxiety occur in different parts of the brain.
Mayer told INSIDER that normal bouts of worry develop in the pre-frontal cortex, aka the “thinking part of the brain” while anxiety, he explained, engages parts of the brain “that incite the fear response,” such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus.
Anxiety prompts the limbic system, which controls your emotions and how you react to them, as well as your motivation and memory, Mayer explained. Therefore, professionals consider worrying to be purely thinking, but view anxiety as something that is both cognitive and physical.
Anxiety is as physical as it is mental.
According to Forshee, normal worry comes and goes in a short amount of time, so even though you might feel some tension, restlessness, and irritability associated with it what you’re feeling isn’t the same as the physiological response that ensues from an anxiety disorder.
“Those who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder experience a physiological response as a result of their brain associating the worry thoughts with an actual perceived threat,” Forshee told INSIDER.
“This throws the brain into a fight or flight response that generates an increased heart rate, sweating, feelings of tension, difficulty breathing, etc.”
Normal worry can pass pretty quickly but anxiety lingers.
According to the ADAA, someone who suffers from a generalized anxiety disorder will experience three or more symptoms on more days than not for at least six months in a row. Normal worry, however, will usually fade quickly.
“Many people may get nervous before an exam, work presentation, or in anticipation of a big event. It may last for a short period of time, but quickly goes away and you return to feeling like yourself again,” Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health told INSIDER.
“This type of worrying or anxiety is short-lived, but doesn’t affect your overall life or ability to ‘bounce back’ into your normal level of functioning.”
Anxiety disorders can drastically affect your quality of life.
General symptoms of anxiety include fatigue, headaches, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and loss of appetite, sleep, and interest in sex, Robert Glatter, M.D. told INSIDER.
Depending on how frequently and intensely these symptoms come about, panic attacks may occur, affecting not only your everyday life but your long-term health as well.
“[Panic attacks] may occur unexpectedly and peak in a matter of minutes,” said Glatter.
Glatter explained that panic attacks are associated with heart pounding, sweating, inability to focus, and difficulty thinking through an issue which normally is not a problem.
Frequently experiencing panic attacks can make it difficult for someone to participate in everyday activities which can drastically affect their quality of life.
Those who suffer from anxiety often experience negative mental imagery.
This is especially important because “emotional mental images such as those associated with anxiety provoke a much greater cardiovascular response than emotional verbal thoughts,” wrote Winch.
Those with an anxiety disorder often worry about their worry.
According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) perceive their worry as harder to control than those who hadn’t been diagnosed with GAD. Because they perceive it as harder to control, they have a greater concern about it. In other words, those with GAD often worry about their worrying.
People with anxiety disorders have thoughts that are more emotionally negative than those of general worriers.
According to the same 2013 study, the actual thoughts reported by people with GAD were more negative than those reported by worriers.
In other words, the negative thoughts arising in people with GAD were more harmful emotionally, than the thoughts that worriers experienced.
To know if you have an anxiety disorder, talk to a professional.
According to Mayo Clinic, unlike normal worrying, generalized anxiety is a clinical disorder diagnosed through either a series of physical exams, blood or urine tests, psychological questionnaires, or based on the criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
If you believe you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do is seek treatment.
“You’ve got to find somebody who practices cognitive behavioural therapy,” clinical psychologist Kevin Chapman previously told INSIDER.“That’s the gold standard treatment for all things anxiety.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, is a collaborative approach between the patient and a therapist. CBT aims to identify, understand, and change behaviour or thinking patterns, according to the ADAA.
Those with anxiety disorders often find success using medication to treat their symptoms.
Distracting yourself with different activities like reading, listening to music, or just generally shifting your focus can ease the passing worry.
Someone experiencing anxiety disorder, however, might want to be prescribed medications from a professional.
According to Mayo Clinic, the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety disorder are antidepressants to reduce symptoms, Buspirone, which is taken on a regular basis to significantly reduce anxiety over the course of several weeks, and, under special circumstances, a sedative called Benzodiazepines.
To find out the best medication for you, it’s crucial you talk to a professional.
If you are struggling with mental illness and need help finding treatment, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or call their free 24/7 helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.
Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
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