Anxiety vs. Nervousness 101: Managing ‘Mild’ Anxiety
Anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders and even post-traumatic stress disorder are all classified as “anxiety disorders” by mental health professionals. In order to be diagnosed with one, you must meet certain criteria: the way in which you experience your symptoms must be severe enough, appear often enough and become disruptive enough to be called an anxiety disorder. But what if you’re just “nervous”? How can you get a handle on being nervous and stop it from gaining ground and becoming an anxiety disorder? And more importantly, how can you prevent nervousness from impacting your job, your relationships and your happiness?
Anxiety in all its forms, ranging form mild nervousness to severe panic, is an extremely common human experience. Sometimes people find a small amount of this emotion exciting and fun: for example, skydiving as a hobby would involve some level of nervousness, at least the first time. Similarly, watching a suspenseful or scary movie would create some feeling of anxiety, but many people really enjoy this type of entertainment.
Here are a few ways to differentiate problematic or potentially diagnosable anxiety disorders from general nervousness:
- Anxiety is typically irrational, meaning that when you are feeling it, you know it makes no sense. You can give a number of reasons you should not be anxious, worried or frightened… and yet you feel terrified. Nervousness is related to real things you have to deal with: you feel nervous about speaking in front of the board of directors, or awaiting lab test results after the doctor saw “something” on your X-ray. Nervousness is a sensible reaction to a potentially scary situation.
- Anxiety has a physical component. A panic attack is often mistaken for a heart attack—you get real, intense, sometimes overwhelming and sudden physical symptoms. These symptoms include a racing heart rate, sweating, nausea, etc. Many people go to the emergency room when they are experiencing an acute panic attack—they really believe they are dying. Nervousness is typically not so physical. You might feel some mild stomach discomfort or a slightly faster than normal heart rate, but typically a case of nerves doesn’t impact your entire body the way a panic attack does.
- Nervousness ends when the scary event is over. You worry and fret over getting that call back about the job, then the call comes through and you feel relieved or disappointed, but you no longer feel nervous. People struggling with anxiety feel that sickening sense of dread or terror almost every day. It never goes away—it just attaches itself to something new, or it remains generalized or free floating.
Ok, So I’m Nervous – Now What?
As common as anxiety disorders are, many people just don’t quite fit into the specific categories of anxiety disorders and really are just plain nervous. Often, this is just a part your personality—some people are more prone to being nervous than others. If you recognize yourself as nervous, and don’t like how much of your time is spent worrying or feeling scared, concerned, or upset, consider the following tips. However, first and foremost, do check in with your doctor and make sure you definitely do not meet criteria for a bona fide anxiety disorder or depression. Sometimes depression shows up with lots of worry and irritability and not so much sadness. Be sure to rule out those mental illnesses before embarking upon a self-care regime!
- Listen to that voice in your head. The voice that narrates everything you do and “talks” you through your day can have a big impact upon how nervous you feel. Even more importantly, it can change. Start by just listening—notice how you talk to yourself. If that self-talk voice is saying things that make you nervous, start questioning it. Ask yourself: do I really need to worry about this now? Is this helpful, important, or positive in any way? If not, then decide what might be more positive and helpful to tell yourself and start substituting that message. At first this might feel a little awkward but with practice it will become as natural to be positive as it was to be negative.
- Exercise. I know, you’re groaning. Why is exercise always the suggestion for everything that ails you? I may as well suggest you eat your vegetables next, right? But exercise does help you produce endorphins, which are “feel good” hormones that really do improve your ability to relax. It can also take you out of your own head for a while, and it is a healthier distraction than watching television or eating sweets. And regular exercise can also shift the balance of other “feel good” hormones including dopamine and serotonin, both of which are considered important to maintaining an overall positive mood.
- While I sound preachy, let’s talk diet. You knew this was coming, right? The only truly stringent diet recommendation I make regarding anxiety and nervousness is to take a critical look at your caffeine intake. Even if you don’t drink 10 cups a day, consider cutting back a little and see if it helps. Caffeine does increase a sense of nervousness.
- Develop some insight. If you’ve been “wired” to be nervous most of your life, get curious about that. Were you a nervous little kid? Why? Have you grown into a nervous adult partly out of habit? Take a long look at where and how your nervousness began (if you can pinpoint a beginning), and ask yourself if being nervous is still relevant. Maybe it was the best you could do at that time, but now that you are older and have more life experience, you can let it go. A therapist is a great help in this process, especially if you have been spinning your wheels on your own.