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  • Brooke Aymes

Normal Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder

How To Measure the Difference between Regular Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder

There is a lot of talk around feelings in the world right now. One of the feelings that we hear the most about is anxiety. Most of the talk surrounding anxiety seems to be negative. For instance, “My child cannot leave my side because he has separation anxiety” or “My anxiety makes me awkward and therefore I come off as rude.” Most of the talk surrounding anxiety makes it sound like if we are experiencing anxiety, than we must be flawed.

That is simply not the case. Anxiety is a normal feeling, just like feeling sad is a normal, just like feeling grief is normal, just like feeling angry is even normal. Those feelings may be uncomfortable feelings to experience and to learn how to cope through however, they are very normal feelings to experience.

Anxiety is derived from fear.

Fear is an emotional response to a real or a perceived threat and anxiety is the reaction or anticipation to that fear and/or stress.

Feeling anxiety serves a purpose and can be beneficial at times. It can trigger what is commonly known as the fight or flight response and it can help motivate us to study for a test or alarm us if our safety is being jeopardized.

There are a few ways that we can feel anxiety. We can feel it in our mind and/or we can feel it in our body. In our mind it might look like always thinking the worse case scenario and in our bodies it might look like sweating, difficulty sleeping and belly issues.

The main ways to measure the differences between regular anxiety and having an anxiety disorder are the stressors, intensity/length and impact on life. The fight or flight response serves a valuable purpose, however if everyday tasks are causing us to feel anxious or if we are feeling anxious on more days than not or if feeling anxious is interfering with our quality of life than we may be experiencing an anxiety disorder and it may be helpful to sort through those feelings with a licensed professional.

A man in a blue sweater talking to a therapist with blonde hair engaging in anxiety therapy.

Most Common Anxiety Disorders

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder is characterized by fear associated with a separation from our home or attachment figures. An individual with separation anxiety disorder may have difficulty functioning due to significant distress and may have difficulty carrying out productive tasks socially, academically and occupationally.

Individuals with this diagnosis tend to worry about the well-being and/or death of their attachment figures especially during times of separation.

They may also worry about something happening to them that would prevent them from being reunited with their loved ones for example, becoming lost or kidnapped. They will often want to keep in touch with their attachment figures when separated for these reasons.

The age of onset for diagnosis can be as early as preschool age with periods of intense anxiety and periods of remission.

In children this might look like never wanting to be alone.

They may refuse to sleep outside of their home and/or refuse to be away from attachment figures for extended periods of time. For example, refusing to go to friends’ sleepovers and refusing to attend camps. Children with separation anxiety disorder may appear to be clingy and may not even want to travel into different rooms of the home without attachment figures present. Physical symptoms in children might look like headaches, nausea and complaining of belly issues in general.

Separation anxiety disorder typically develops as a result of experiencing significant change or grief. Examples of this may look like, experiencing a divorce, loss of a pet and/or loved one, moving to a new home and/or switching schools.

According to the DSM-5, in order to be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder the fear must last at least six months or more in adults and at least four weeks in children.

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

Social anxiety disorder is characterized by fear of social situations. An individual with social anxiety disorder experiences fear regarding social situations, especially when the individual may be analyzed by others.

Professional people wearing masks discussing social anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Individuals with this disorder will typically have fear that other people will notice their anxiety symptoms and that they will be negatively evaluated based on their anxiety symptoms which ultimately makes the anxiety worse.

For a person to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, they must almost always experience fear as a result of a social situation or the anticipation of a social situation. The fear that they experience is not proportionate for the threat of the social situation and due to the significant fear many social situations are completely avoided.

The age of onset for this diagnosis is typically around age thirteen. In children this may be expressed in tantrums, freezing and/or becoming small in social situations. For a child to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder the anxiety needs to be present among social interactions with both peers and adults.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder is the characterized by excessive worry. Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder experience this excessive worry on more days than not and they will find it difficult to not worry. This might look like experiencing obsessive worrisome thoughts and not being able to change the thoughts or stop the thoughts from reoccurring.

Woman in her thirties wearing a blue shirt struggling with generalized anxiety disorder.

Adults with this disorder tend to worry about life circumstances including work, family, children and finances. Children with this disorder tend to worry about competence and performance typically associated with school and sports.

The body usually stays in a state of stress due to the intrusive, negative thoughts and for that reason individuals with this disorder may experience significant physical distress.

  • difficulty sleeping

  • muscle tension

  • irritability/changes in mood

  • fatigue

  • difficulty concentrating

  • dissociating (mind going blank)

  • restlessness (cannot sit still)

Age of onset for this disorder is typically thirty years old and females are twice as likely as males to experience generalized anxiety disorder.

If you or a loved one is experiencing significant anxiety that is negatively impacting your quality of life, click here to learn more about anxiety therapy.


Licensed therapist Brooke Aymes sitting on top of a mountain smiling in New Jersey.

Hey, I'm Brooke! I'm a licensed anxiety and addiction therapist serving individuals and adolescents in the state of New Jersey. My experience brings both a personal and professional perspective to the work that I do with my clients. If you are struggling with anxiety and would like to schedule a free consultation, I would love to chat with you!

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