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Just a Bad Case of the Nerves or Anxiety Disorder? Here’s How to Tell

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The subject line of the email reads: You have a new test result in your online medical chart.

The routine blood work you had the day before is complete. You tell yourself it was just part of your annual physical, but you can’t stop your hands from shaking. You try taking deep breaths, but your heart pounds and sweat beads on your forehead. You reach for the mouse to open the email, and your hand just won’t move. You’re paralyzed. Fear is winning, and you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it.

Getting nervous before opening an email, taking a test, or having a difficult conversation is a normal part of life. Nerves increase your energy for challenging or unpleasant tasks and help you focus when critical decisions must be made.

But when nervousness is the norm rather than the exception — and anxiety levels keep you from enjoying life or performing everyday tasks — something else may be going on.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder is more than just a case of the nerves. If left untreated, emotional symptoms lead to physical symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, muscle aches and tension, nervousness, diarrhea and other digestive issues, sweating and irritability. Basically, what’s happening on the inside begins showing on the outside, as uncontrolled and irrational fear takes over every part of your life.1

Other symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include:

  • Persistent worry about things that are out of proportion to what could actually happen
  • Overthinking plans and solutions to worse-case scenarios
  • Seeing situations as threatening even when they aren’t
  • Unable to handle uncertainty
  • Unreasonable fears about making the wrong decision
  • Unable to let go of worry
  • Restless, keyed up or on edge
  • “Blank” mind or the inability to concentrate1

In teens and children, anxiety can often hide beneath perfectionism, a need for approval, and even a lack of confidence. But what’s really at the heart of these personality quirks may actually be an anxiety disorder. Children often have a hard time telling their parents when they’re overwhelmed by fear. Unreasonable fears about the safety of loved ones, some kind of nuclear attack, or a natural disaster are also signs of anxiety and shouldn’t be ignored.2

Just Nerves?

The biggest difference between nervousness, occasional anxiety, and an anxiety disorder is how symptoms impact your daily life. If you can use common techniques, like deep breathing, talking out loud to yourself or to a friend, meditating, or physical activity to get past what you’re feeling and move forward, most likely what you have is an extreme case of nerves. Although scary at times, nervousness typically subsides without treatment.

Panic attacks are also possible when nerves get out of control, and many people experience panic at some point in their lives. The symptoms of panic attacks can often make you feel like you’re having a heart attack. Once a heart problem is ruled out, it’s a good idea to talk to a mental health professional about what you experienced.

But if your symptoms are so regular and severe that you experience pain, can’t get out of bed, go to work or school, or generally function, some type of anxiety disorder is most likely the culprit.3

Coping With Anxiety

A proper diagnosis is the first step in learning to cope with an anxiety disorder. Knowing the things you’re experiencing aren’t just nerves offers hope for a normal life. Treatment approaches vary depending on the therapist and type of anxiety disorder, but most people see improvement in just a few weeks of treatment.

Some of the most common treatment options include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Focuses on identifying, understanding and changing thinking patterns and behaviors
  • Exposure Therapy: Involves gradual exposure to a frightening situation or object, producing less sensitivity over time
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Focuses on mindfulness, commitment and behavior change
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR): Helps the brain process trauma in a less frightening way4

It’s important to have coping strategies in place to manage anxiety between therapy sessions. Getting quality sleep, eating right and regular exercise can go along way to keeping your mood balanced and your anxiety at bay. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, talking to a friend, and identifying a happy and safe place where your mind can go are also techniques that can help reduce anxious thoughts and feelings.

University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry professor Bernard Biermann, MD, PhD, also recommends challenging yourself. “Setting goals that push you out of your comfort zone will help you realize that you can take on the actions that trigger your anxiety,” he said. “Someone with social anxiety, for example, can set a goal to go to Starbucks and order a coffee rather than making coffee at home.”3

Finding Help for Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are some of the most commonly diagnosed types of mental illness. It’s nice to know that, if you’re experiencing anxiety, you’re not alone. Help is available and treatment works. If you or a loved one struggles with anxiety, we’re here for you.

By Patti Richards


1Generalized anxiety disorder.” Mayo Clinic, October 13, 2017.

2Childhood Anxiety Disorders.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, September 2015.

3 Hotchkin, Kaitlyn. “What’s the Difference Between Nerves and Anxiety?” Michigan Health, August 25, 2017.

4Therapy.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed November 14, 2017.