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  • Differences Between Typical Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder

    As a society, we are much more aware and informed on how common anxiety is. And in reality, anxiety is common because anxiety is a byproduct of biological responses to stress and fear. Anxiety is the result of our body functioning as it should. Our body prepares us to respond to stress and act in a way to keep us safe.

    Because of this natural response, it has become more commonplace to openly talk about stressors that produce anxiety for us. It is typical to hear a conversation where we describe how anxious we were during a work presentation, or how anxiety-producing an exam was.

    But what happens when the natural anxiety we feel gets out of control? When the anxiety is no longer functional, but rather excessive and disproportionate to events, then we can experience an anxiety disorder.

    If you are wondering if your levels of anxiety are within normal range, or if they are wreaking havoc on your life, take a look at the comparisons below:

    Example 1: Imagine that your supervisor requests to have you meet them in their office. The tone in the email is neutral. There are no emojis or exclamation points. No other details are provided. The request is not a common one.

    Someone with anxiety within normal limits may worry a little bit. They may wonder what topic will be discussed since most issues can be resolved via email or phone call. However, after a minute or two of thinking about their supervisor’s request, they may be able to rationalize that there is no reason to worry. They may be able to rationalize that if there IS a miscommunication or misunderstanding, then they have the confidence and ability to clarify things. They carry on with their tasks.

    Someone who has more excessive anxiety may immediately ruminate on whether they did something wrong. They may think and overthink about all the recent projects and worry about getting into a problem with their supervisor. They may experience shakiness, clammy hands, heart palpitations, and a sense of fear. They may lose their appetite, or feel the need to go to the restroom more than usual. They may be unable to concentrate on their work while they worry about the upcoming meeting in their supervisor’s office.

    Example 2: Once you meet with your supervisor, you discover that they are putting together a retirement celebration for one of your close co-workers, and they wanted your input on what type of cake to get. Relieved that this is what the meeting was about, you provide feedback about their favorite cake. Then your supervisor requests that you arrange the cake order as well as some catering.

    Someone with anxiety within normal limits may accept the new challenge and suddenly become slightly stressed at the thought of being in charge of the cake and food. Although slightly stressed, they may be able to add this to their task list without any major changes to their mood. They may be able to prioritize their tasks and ask for help as needed, if they become busier than expected.

    Someone with more excessive anxiety may feel overwhelmed with the added task. They may become anxious at the thought of not getting the cake or catering order right. They may worry about what others may say if the celebration does not go as planned. Depending on their history, they may have difficulty asking for help or placing boundaries, which may make them begrudgingly accept the challenge.  Someone with excessive anxiety may be overloaded with all the what-ifs of this novel situation.

    Example 3: The day of the retirement celebration at the office arrives. The preparation was a bit stressful, but the cake and catering turned out wonderfully. All your coworkers are enjoying the food and spending quality time together.

    Again, someone with more regulated anxiety may be able to feel relieved at the thought that the celebration went well and the planning is over. This was a new and challenging experience for them, and they may feel accomplished.  New perspectives and lessons were learned along the way and there may be a sense of gratitude as well.

    Someone with more dysregulated anxiety may not be able to let go of the accumulated stress. They may observe their coworkers eating and chatting and wonder if they are “truly” enjoying themselves or if they are “faking it” to be nice. They may wonder why certain people did not say thank you to them directly. They may wonder if people will be talking behind their backs afterwards about how awful the cake and food was. This in turn can isolate the anxious individual and can continue to perpetuate the anxious feelings they have been feeling all along. This person may return home still stressed, still anxious, and exhausted from the mental load.

    The examples were meant to show how anxiety can manifest in regular, everyday situations. These examples are also representative of the different types of anxiety disorders which can show up depending on different types of stressors. If you realize that you are in the category of someone who experiences more excessive anxiety, or more dysregulated anxiety, then identifying it can make a world of difference. Identifying and acknowledging when something is out of balance, is the first step in gaining back some control over your life.