How An Anxiety Disorder Is Different Than Feeling Anxious

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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I have an anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, to be specific. That means that before I was properly medicated, I would just … freak out. About everything. Little things become Big Things to me. Imagine, for example, that your spouse has to drive to the grocery store late at night. It’s Friday. You might have a fleeting thought about drunk drivers, but you let it pass. But for me, it wouldn’t pass. It would gnaw at me. Obsess me. Until I would beg my husband not to go. “Too many people are drunk, you can’t go out,” I’d tell him. “You’ll die on the road.” This when the grocery store is only a mile from our house.

Or imagine this: you just got an email from your boss. The tone was neutral. A normal person would take the tone as neutral. To someone with an anxiety disorder, the neutral tone becomes a minefield. What did this pronoun mean? This comma? Am I fucking everything up? Are they trying to fire me by asking me to do this, waiting for me to get fed up and quit? The thoughts would obsess me. I cannot talk myself out of them. My husband, my friends cannot talk me out of them. These thoughts do not listen to logic or reason. Sometimes, despite my daily meds, this still happens, and I need to take extra medication to calm down.

Everyone feels anxious sometimes. We get anxious when we go somewhere alone. When we have to make small talk with strangers. Or when we have big job interview or get test results back. But as Holly Valerio, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells SELF, “Some anxiety is helpful and necessary to motivate us to act; for example, if you need to start an assignment that is due tomorrow or if you are in the woods and see a bear.”

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Let’s repeat that: some anxiety is normal, necessary, and even helpful. Your fight-or-flight response pings your autonomic nervous system, which might result in a racing heart, quicker breathing, sweaty palms, and all the rest of it.

This doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder. It means you’re a human being.

Here’s the key: your anxiety levels should be in proportion to the thing you’re anxious about. Being freaked out that your parent is dying when they’re in the ICU is going to make you worry a hell of a lot. It’ll probably mimic the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, which can include “persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. It may mimic some of the symptoms of PTSD, which can include frequent nightmares and trouble sleeping. You may even have a panic attack or two.

But if these things happen when you have to drive over a bridge, take a test you’ve prepared for, or meet new people, you may have an anxiety disorder. I used to be afraid my son’s head would fall off. I’m not kidding. I was also gut-wrenching terrified by the tiny size of my middle son’s kidneys. They were normal-sized for a baby. But the sheer tininess of his baby kidneys made my heart race. These things are not normal.

We all freak out sometimes. It’s part of the human condition, freaking out. It’s especially part of being a mom, and especially being a new mom, when every single thing feels like a goddamn crisis. The baby’s belly button stump looks gangrenous. The baby has a fever. The baby rolled off the couch and hit his head. Is he nursing enough? Is he sleeping enough? Is he sleeping too much? And on and on and on.

The world conspires to make new mothers anxious about their own ability to parent, to make them distrust their own instincts. And without a village, there’s no ready reassurance. So we panic. We bite our fingernails. We worry and fret.

This is normal. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder.

However, if you worry constantly about things that don’t bother other moms — for example, I used to see visions of my son’s tiny shoes strewn on the side of highway after a car accident — or if your worries are so obsessive that no amount of logic or reason can turn them off, you might have a problem. If you worry out of proportion from the thing you’re anxious about, or the likelihood of it happening, you may have a problem.

Here’s the issue, though, according to SELF: in order to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder like GAD, your feelings have to persist for six months; social phobia requires about the same. Panic attacks have to happen with no discernible trigger, and on multiple occasions. Postpartum anxiety, according to Postpartum Support International, happens to about 10% of women. Again, these differ from normal pregnancy and post-pregnancy worries. Symptoms include constant worry, racing thoughts (you can’t turn them off), feeling that something bad is going to happen (that something being often nonspecific, or changing), and sleep and appetite changes.

There’s treatment for an anxiety disorder. This can include therapy — cognitive behavioral therapy is especially helpful, according to SELF — and medication, many of which are safe to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Anxiety disorders, according to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, are the most common mental illness in the United States. They affect 18.1% of the population every year. If you think your anxiety is interfering with activities you enjoy, talk to your doctor.

But remember: being anxious doesn’t, in and of itself, mean you have an anxiety disorder. If you suspect that you might, or you’re feeling anxious more than you think is healthy, it’s best to talk to a doctor or a therapist. But even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, feeling anxious is difficult, and there are treatments you can use. WedMD recommends getting plenty of exercise and paying attention to your sleep. Meditation and relaxation, according to Medical News Today, can also help, especially things like mindfulness, conscious relaxation, and yoga. They also say that writing down anxious feelings — by journaling, for example — can also help. Again, a conversation with your doctor will help you understand what treatment options — whether they include medication, therapy, or something else — are most appropriate.

Whether you’re dealing with a full-blown anxiety disorder or situationally-related anxious feelings, don’t worry. (Easier said than done for someone who’s already feeling anxious or dealing with an anxiety disorder, right?) There are ways to mitigate your tendency to worry or stress out.

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