Can I Be Anxious Without Having an Anxiety Disorder?

By Linda Rodgers

The short answer: yes. It’s normal to worry about things. You probably have a lot going on that can stress you out—things happening at home, deadlines at school or work, managing friendships, figuring out your future and how you fit in, and, you know, the fate of the planet. No wonder a lot of us are feeling anxious.

Feeling worried or stressed about things means you care deeply about them. These emotions, including fear, are there for a reason. They evolved to protect us from danger. That’s why when you’re super-stressed and worried, your heart races and you start breathing faster. It’s your body’s way of warning you that there is something “threatening” out there you need to protect yourself from. 

Feeling stressed or anxious about something can feel like anxiety, but there’s a difference. With anxiety, that fear doesn’t go away. Your body and mind are always on high alert. Anxiety also isn’t necessarily tied to one specific thing, and it can make it hard to do the things you normally do and enjoy. 

So is it stress? Or is it anxiety? Here’s your cheat sheet. 

Stress Is Caused By Something Specific

When you’re stressed, there’s usually something external triggering your worries. Maybe you have to give a presentation in English on the same day you have a math exam, or there’s an audition coming up for the season’s big play and you’re afraid you won’t make the cut. Maybe you failed two midterms and now you’re panicking over the possibility that your scholarship is in danger. 

All these things can stress you out, but then you focus, study, practice, or talk to your professor and move through the moment and on to the next thing.

Anxiety Is Focused on the Future or Stuck in the Past

If you’re living with anxiety, you not only worry about the specific event, but you also spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going to happen in the future. Anxiety fills your thoughts with what-ifs. What if you fail the test and then fail the class? What if you have to repeat the class and can’t graduate? What if you get so nervous during the audition that you freeze, and there goes your dream of an acting career?

Sometimes you also can’t stop thinking about the past, especially about mistakes you feel you’ve made. Maybe you replay a conversation with your professor and wonder if she now thinks you’re stupid or childish, or you worry the jokes you made at lunch were terrible and you beat yourself up for making them. Being stuck in this type of negative loop of self-criticism is called rumination. 

Stress Is Short-Lived

As soon as the test, party, or talent show is over, so is your stress. No matter how it went, you probably feel relieved that it’s done and you’re already focused on other things coming up on your calendar.

Anxiety Is Constant

When you have anxiety, you can’t stop thinking something bad is going to happen to you (or just happened to you). Your thoughts may seem over the top for the situation. That pop quiz you didn’t do well on? Maybe you can’t stop thinking about it, or wondering what you could have done differently. It may make you feel like a failure or ruin the rest of your week. 

If you’re living with anxiety, your fears can take up a lot of room in your head, and it can be hard to stop thinking about them and break the cycle.

Stress Can Make You Temporarily Feel Bad

When you’re stressed, your heart rate can go up. You breathe faster and take shallower breaths. You may feel queasy or get a headache. Maybe you have a hard time sleeping the night before something you’re worried about. That’s all part of our survival system, keeping us on our toes. Once the “danger” is over, however, you feel OK again.

Anxiety Can Make You Sick

When you have anxiety, you sometimes feel like you are in constant fight-or-flight mode. Your worries don’t go away, or they keep coming back. That can lead to physical symptoms or headaches, or make it hard to sleep or eat like you normally do. 

Anxiety looks different for everyone, of course, but here are some tell-tale signs:

  • You worry that something bad is going to happen almost all the time.
  • You think in worst-case scenarios, which is known as catastrophizing.
  • You can’t stop criticizing yourself or thinking you’re not good enough.
  • Your worries make it hard to manage your daily life.

If that sounds familiar, check out How Do I Know If I Have an Anxiety Disorder to learn more. Once you know what you’re going through, there are ways to manage your anxiety and get the help you deserve. 

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