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Telling the Difference Between Nerves and Anxiety

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Anxiety. What a word. Everyone is susceptible to experiencing bouts of anxiety. If you have an essay due tomorrow that you haven’t started working on yet, you’re going to be anxious about it. Or are you just stressed? Nervous? Those feelings are easy to mix up.

For a person with an anxiety disorder, however, hearing that word get thrown around can strike a nerve. Or maybe it’s just me. Here’s what I mean. Maybe I’m just envious of other people’s definition of anxiety. They’re anxious about meeting new people, going somewhere they’ve never been, their grades, the list goes on and on. But again, anxiousness or nervousness? I would never question the intensity or legitimacy of someone’s feelings including their nerves. The thing is, when someone is talking to me about feeling anxious about any of those things listed above, I’m more than happy to listen, but I’m just thinking “I wish my anxiety was on their level.”

Personally, those things I mentioned, I have only ever experienced nervousness because as someone with a full-blown anxiety disorder, I understand the difference between anxiety and nerves. There is a difference. When I’m doing statistics homework and thinking about the final exam but I’m not feeling sick, crying and/or shaking, I’m nervous. When I’m thinking about how I don’t want to go to a family event because the last time I went to one, someone said something that triggered me for the rest of the night, I’m anxious. I stayed up all night and cried multiple times because my anxiety was triggered by a harmless statement. I mean, to anyone else, it was harmless; to my anxiety and me, it was threatening. My anxiety felt threatened. For someone else, these two situations may go in opposite directions. Someone with an anxiety disorder may experience the same reaction as I did to that harmless statement to their pending statistics final while they may simply experience nervousness with going to family gatherings out of fear of a harmless statement being made.

As I speak with people who throw the word “anxiety” around, I often just wonder how they’d be doing if they were me and vice versa. It would be nice to not be up all night thinking about severely detrimental things that may or may not happen. It would be nice to be able to go to a family gathering without worrying about something being said that’ll trigger my anxiety. It would be nice to not shut down completely once my anxiety has been triggered and shut myself in my room. It would be nice to not immediately start shaking and crying when someone says they have to tell me something because that’s my anxiety’s immediate reaction due to past events. It would be nice if all of those things were just nerves.

It may be asking a lot, but learning the difference between nerves and anxiety could be a helpful piece of knowledge when interacting with someone with a full-blown anxiety disorder.

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Getty Images photo via tommaso79

Originally published: January 2, 2018
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