What Is "Normal" Anxiety and How Do You Know When You Need Help?


A black man suffering from anxiety and depression sits on a park bench and holds his head in his hands

Key takeaways:

  • Occasional anxiousness is a regular part of life but people with anxiety disorders experience repeated episodes of intense anxiety and fear.

  • Common symptoms of chronic anxiety include persistent worry, feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, excessive alertness or fear, restlessness, irritability, sleep disturbances, and muscle tension.

  • It’s important to seek professional help instead of turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders adults experience. The pandemic has brought our mental health crisis to the forefront even more. While measures like social distancing and remote work have helped stop the spread of COVID-19, the unintended consequence is that many have been left feeling lonely, isolated, and depressed.


Add to that the fear and anxiety surrounding the virus itself, as well as other everyday stressors, and we are left with lots of stress, pain, and grief. In this article, we explore “normal” anxiety, common signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders, and when it’s time to see a therapist.


What is anxiety?


Anxiety is a normal reaction to danger that’s triggered when you feel threatened, pressured, or are facing a challenging situation like a job interview or first date. It’s okay in moderation.


Anxiety disorders on the other hand involve constant, overwhelming anxiety that interferes with your daily life and/or relationships Typically, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of extreme worry or fear.


These feelings can last a long time and are out of proportion to the actual danger. Often, symptoms of anxiety start during childhood or the teen years and continue into adulthood. In many instances, sufferers avoid certain situations or settings to prevent feelings of overwhelming worry.


What are the commons signs and symptoms of anxiety?


Signs and symptoms of anxiety are usually self-diagnosable and include the following:


  • Feeling nervous or restless

  • A sense of panic, doom, or impending danger

  • Increased heart rate

  • Hyperventilation or rapid breathing

  • Trembling and racing thoughts

  • Sweating

  • Feeling weak or tired

  • Constant, uncontrolled worrying and trouble concentrating

  • Sleeplessness

  • Gastrointestinal (GI) problems

  • Having the desire to avoid things that trigger anxiety

  • Irritability


Types of anxiety


There are many different types of anxiety disorders. The most common are:


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)


GAD involves persistent and excessive anxiety and worries over activities and events, even ordinary occurrences. With GAD, worry is hard to control and affects how you physically feel. Also, it is out of proportion to the actual circumstance.


Social anxiety


This involves fear, anxiety, and avoidance of social situations. Social anxiety creates feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness, and concern about being judged and viewed negatively by the people around you.


Specific phobias


These occur when a person feels very fearful about a particular object or situation and may go to great lengths to avoid it. People with phobias imagine or irrationally exaggerate the danger. Phobias provoke panic attacks in some people. Examples of specific and common phobias include:

  • Acrophobia – Fear of heights

  • Aerophobia -Fear of flying

  • Astraphobia – Fear of loud, natural noises, especially thunder and lightning

  • Autophobia – Fear of being alone or lonely

  • Claustrophobia – Fear of confined or crowded spaces

  • Hemophobia – Fear of blood

  • Zoophobia – Fear of animals


Panic disorders


Panic disorders often cause episodes involving shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering, or pounding heart. These symptoms are caused by repeated episodes and sudden feelings of terror that reach a peak within minutes. Panic attacks often lead to further worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they’ve occurred.


Post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD)


PTSD is a set of distinct reactions that can develop in individuals who have experienced a traumatic event that threatened their life or safety or the lives or safety of those around them. As a result of this difficult event, the person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or even horror.

What causes anxiety disorders?


Unfortunately, the causes are not fully understood. Life experiences such as traumatic events seem to trigger anxiety disorders in people. Inherited traits also seem to be a factor. Also, for some people, anxiety may be linked to an underlying health issue, such as chronic pain, heart disease. or irritable bowel syndrome.


Having an anxiety disorder can lead to other mental health and physical conditions including:


  • Depression

  • Substance abuse

  • Insomnia

  • Social isolation

  • Headaches and chronic pain

  • Suicidal thoughts


When to seek treatment for anxiety


Seeking help and support for chronic anxiety can be extremely beneficial. Symptoms of anxiety disorders do not usually go away on their own. If left untreated, these disorders can greatly interfere with your life, work, and/or relationships.


In addition to seeking out a therapist and/or doctor, staying active can reduce the impact of anxiety. Participating in activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself can make you feel less anxious. Social interaction and caring relationships lessen stress and worry. In contrast, alcohol or drug use can cause worsening anxiety and should be avoided.


Professional support w