Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/10/2022
If you’ve ever felt stressed about work or worried about money or a problem in your relationship, you’ve dealt with anxiety. But what is normal anxiety and how is it different from something like an anxiety disorder? Is it normal to have anxiety? And what can you do about anxiety or an anxiety disorder?
Everyone experiences anxiety — worry and anxiety can even be beneficial sometimes — but some people may have such high levels of anxiety that something more is going on.
This guide will provide answers on normal anxiety vs anxiety disorder and how to manage anxiety.
So, what is normal anxiety and how is it different from an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety is normal to experience in our daily lives and is a reaction to stress — whether from facing problems at work, studying before a test or making a big decision.
Stress is a normal reaction of emotional or physical tension to everyday pressure. You may feel scared, worried or tense when you’re stressed and anxious. You may also feel anxious when dealing with the uncertainty of medical conditions.
When we’re under stress or facing a potential threat, our bodies release stress hormones that activate our fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response can be helpful in certain situations by helping you focus or giving you a boost of energy.
When you’re anxious, you may feel tense, sweat more and feel your heartbeat quicken. These are examples of the physiological component of anxiety, with the other two being emotional and cognitive.
A certain amount of anxiety is normal, with doubts and worries lying at one end of the spectrum that goes away once the situation causing stress is over.
So, is anxiety normal? Yes.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, there may be a persistent feeling of dread or worry that doesn’t go away, even if there’s no immediate danger.
But when feelings of anxiety are persistent enough that it starts to interfere with your life, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Experiencing anxiety now and again over something stressful is normal. When anxiety is persistent and negatively impacts your quality of life, this could be an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders that interfere with daily activities like school, work and relationships. They’re one of the most common mental illnesses, with over 40 million U.S. adults dealing with an anxiety disorder.
There are different types of anxiety disorders, each with its symptoms and even treatment options, in some cases. Some of the more common anxiety disorders include:
Generalized anxiety disorder.Generalized anxiety disorder may seem like normal anxiety at first but is characterized by a persistent feeling of dread and worry that interferes with your daily functioning and can last for months or even years.
Social anxiety disorder. This anxiety disorder is a strong fear or anxiousness of being watched or judged negatively while out in social situations.
Panic disorder.Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder where someone experiences panic attacks — frequent and sudden feelings of fear or losing control, even when no danger is around. People with panic disorder may experience symptoms like a pounding heart, sweating, chest pain or trembling.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).OCD is a disorder that causes recurring thoughts and fears that lead to compulsive or repetitive behaviors. People with OCD may repeatedly check certain things, wash their hands often or perform “rituals” to feel relief from obsessive thoughts.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD happens after someone has experienced a traumatic event. We discuss this more in depth in our guide, Is it Anxiety or PTSD?.
Children and adults may experience a form of anxiety called separation anxiety disorder (SAD), where they experience anxiety or intense fear of being separated from people to whom they’re attached, such as a parent, caregiver or loved one.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders can vary by the type of disorder but there are some common symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Some common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
Difficulty concentrating on anything other than current worries or concerns
Feelings of nervousness and restlessness
Feelings of physical weakness and/or tiredness
Stomachaches, cramps, diarrhea and/or constipation
Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
While some of these symptoms may be similar to normal anxiety, symptoms of an anxiety disorder tend to last longer or are more intense.
For example, we might get nervous before a big party but someone with a social anxiety disorder may feel intense fear of being judged negatively at the party.
People with anxiety disorders may also experience major depression, known as comorbid depression and anxiety (two illnesses existing at the same time). Our guide to comorbid anxiety and depressive disorders covers more about this topic.
Another difference between normal anxiety vs anxiety disorder is excessive or out-of-the-ordinary anticipation in the face of uncertainty.
There’s uncertainty in all our lives. But someone with an anxiety disorder may got to exhausting lengths to try to anticipate the uncertainty.
People with anxiety disorder may actively try to avoid certain situations that worsen their symptoms.
To quickly recap: anxiety is normal. “Abnormal” anxiety is a persistent or intense fear or worries, often recognized as an anxiety disorder.
Even if you’re not dealing with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, normal anxiety may still interfere with your life in some ways. Fortunately, there are ways to both manage normal anxiety and treat anxiety disorders.
Therapy — also known as “talk therapy” or psychotherapy — is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders as well as normal anxiety.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 75 percent of people who enter into therapy experience benefits from their treatment.
In therapy, you can discuss your anxiety symptoms and triggers, as well as what’s on your mind, and work with a mental health professional to reduce your anxiety.
Depending on the type of anxiety disorder you have, a healthcare provider may recommend different kinds of therapy, from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to exposure therapy and more.
Our guide to Therapy for Treating Anxiety goes more in-depth on this treatment method.
While not a cure-all for anxiety disorders, making certain lifestyle changes can certainly help reduce stress and anxiety.
Physical activity is one of the most effective natural treatments to reduce stress and provides many long-term health benefits.
Another way to relax and reduce stress is through meditation and mindfulness to improve psychological balance and enhance overall well-being.
If you’re super sensitive to caffeine, reducing your daily consumption may help reduce anxiety.
Our guide, How to Calm Anxiety covers more easy lifestyle choices you can consider.
Medication may be an option if your anxiety symptoms are severe enough. Your healthcare provider will take into consideration your symptoms, current health conditions and other factors to determine if a medication is right for you.
Typical medications used for anxiety include:
Benzodiazepines like alprazolam (Xanax®), clonazepam (Klonopin®) and diazepam (Valium®)
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as sertraline (Zoloft®) or escitalopram (Lexapro®)
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like duloxetine (Cymbalta®)
Beta-blockers like propranolol
There can be benefits and risks to all these medications plus the many others, which you can learn more about in our guide to Anxiety Medications.
Is it normal to have anxiety? Yes, anxiety is normal. What is normal anxiety? Normal anxiety is a reaction to a stressful situation with mild symptoms like tension, sweating or a faster heart rate.
Normal anxiety vs anxiety disorder however is constant feelings of anxiety or worry, even if there’s no clear danger present. There are different types of anxiety disorders that can affect how you think or behave.
There are ways to manage normal anxiety as well as an anxiety disorder, from stress relief tactics you can use every day to medication or therapy. Wondering if medication is right for you? You can consult with a licensed mental healthcare professional to get started. Or you can get started with online therapy for another treatment option.