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Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder: why knowing the difference is key

Whether you've recently been slapped with the 'anxiety disorder' label, you're familiar with feeling anxious or know someone who is, knowing the distinction between anxiety and anxiety disorder is crucial.

I want to make a disclaimer that I am not a mental health professional. This is purely from my own study, research and personal experience.

Let's start with 'anxiety'. We throw the word around a lot, and it is used synonymously for an anxiety disorder. It is important to remember, however, that anxiety or feeling anxious, in terms of the biological reaction in our body is … normal. It is like an alarm system for our body.

Anxiety is a psychological, physiological, and behavioural state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential (NCBI).

In other words, to protect yourself from potential threats. To deal with adverse or surprising situations.

Well, I liked the way my therapist explained it to me. An anxiety disorder is just that the alarm has become overly sensitive. There is no real smoke or fire, but the alarm keeps ringing.

The alarm itself is needed. We all feel anxious at times and whether warranted or not, it is a deep biological and evolutionary reaction. The difference in an anxiety disorder is this constant stimulation of the alarm.

It is a state of defense presided over by nerve circuits of fear and activated by misperception or overestimation of threat from the environment, from the inner world of the body, or from the inner world of thought (Psychology Today).

If we start to believe the fact that an alarm system is inherently wrong, and we must remove it then it would seem absurd. But actually, that's what we try to do when we begin the journey of recovery from an anxiety disorder.

We want to remove the feelings of anxiety because they cause discomfort. They may also remind us of the times we had more intense and disorientating symptoms of an anxiety disorder, causing an increased fear of anxiety itself. It is turned into a villain.

Tackling the incorrect beliefs about anxiety (amongst other things!) and slow exposure with the help of a professional will help us on the journey to healing. We learn to be more tolerant of the 'normal' anxiety and learn what that is.

I will leave you with one more thing, for those reading who are on the journey of recovery or want to help someone who is...

The over-focus on anxiety after the doctor or therapist tells you, makes it feel like an enduring character trait.

Sure, some of us may be more prone to anxiety, more sensitive according to upbringing or genetics, but it is NOT "you". Remember you were still you before that label.

Don't get me wrong, it is very useful to be diagnosed, when it gives you professional help and when you're completely lost on your own. But you're more than all of this!

You can learn to become friends with this part of you. You can learn what helps and what aggravates it. You can learn to just be with it. Give it lots and lots of time and help to heal.

This experience of overcoming an anxiety disorder and tolerating anxiety will help you reach higher heights and give you unimaginable courage.

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow' (Mary Anne Radmacher).




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