Merriam-Webster defines the medical term of anxiety as "an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fears often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one's capacity to cope with it."²
Although fear plays a significant role in anxiety, it is much more than that. Anxiety is a very real medical condition that affects the body.
For instance, although the thought of standing on a mountain top scares you, that may not be anxiety. However, if you fixate on the thought to the extent that it impacts your quality of life and causes you to feel extremely anxious and overwhelmed despite not being anywhere near a mountain, you may have anxiety¹.
From a diagnostic point, there are a number of different anxiety disorders. These include:
Your body can react to these anxiety disorders with the following 'fight or flight' responses:
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If you or a loved one think you may have an anxiety disorder, consulting your primary care doctor is the first thing you should do.
Your primary care physician can discuss your symptoms, give you more information about anxiety, and guide you to the treatments that will work best for you.
The most commonly used diagnostic handbook is the DSM-V and it is likely that your doctor will use this to confirm your diagnosis. The DSM-V provides clear diagnostic criteria for each anxiety disorder.
For example, when interviewing you to see if you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) your doctor will determine whether you have had excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months. This excessive anxiety may be about one or more events or activities (such as work or school performance). They will also investigate other criteria.
If your doctor is considering panic disorder, they will ask a series of questions, and confirm that your symptoms are not because of the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism, cardiopulmonary disorders).
Your doctor will continue to ask questions until they believe that you have received the correct diagnosis. The visit with your doctor will entail a mix of evaluations, assessments, and their professional opinion to diagnose the cause behind your symptoms.³
There are many similarities between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. Both experiences can lead to feelings of nervousness, fear, worry, and also cause trembling.
However, if those feelings are overwhelming, unmanageable, and negatively affect your quality of life, then you may have an anxiety disorder.
Unlike typical feelings of anxiousness, anxiety disorder symptoms⁴:
Can come up suddenly or in response to a stressful situation
Irrational thinking can take over (i.e., a fear of something unlikely to happen)
Can last for a long time, even after the problem that caused it is no longer relevant
Can cause you to avoid doing certain things due to fear of triggering anxiety symptoms
On the other hand, normal anxiety is associated with a specific problem, goes away when that problem is resolved, and causes realistic responses to the problem.
When experiencing symptoms that may be anxiety, the following information can help you understand what it means to have an anxiety disorder:
Anxiety disorders cause your body to react with 'fight or flight' responses that vary from person to person. These responses often come in symptoms like extreme worrying, irritation, trembling, headaches, upset stomach, and increased heart rate.
Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by using the DSM-5 and your doctor's professional assessment and opinion.
The significant difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder is the severity and duration of your symptoms. If your anxiety is overwhelming, unmanageable, and affecting your quality of life, then you should discuss anxiety disorders with your doctor.
What is the meaning of anxiety? | Calm Clinic
Anxiety definition | Merriam-Webster
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Symptoms and Diagnosis | VeryWellMind
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