It can be hard to tell the difference between being anxious and nervous. In this article I share key differences between the two and share tips on how to manage anxiety and nervousness.
Anxious vs. nervous – which one are you? There’s a difference between anxious and nervous, and I’m going to share some tips with you about how to manage anxiety and nervousness. But first, we need to identify what the difference is between anxiety and being nervous.
The three main deciders between anxiety and nervousness are the length of time of symptoms, the severity of the symptoms, and whether that anxiety or nervousness in question is situational. There’s also a difference between localized anxiety and an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders include, but are not limited to, General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The criteria for an anxiety disorder include the length of time and the severity of symptoms, as I mentioned earlier. We’re not going to get into the ins and outs of anxiety disorders, but it’s useful to know that there is a difference between an anxiety disorder, localized anxiety, and being nervous.
Someone who is nervous responds to a specific situation with an emotion that causes them to feel nervous or worried. Nervousness is situational. It usually goes away after the situation is over. For example, you could be nervous about a big presentation at work or upcoming test.. Once it’s over, the nervousness is gone.
Anxiety can be situational, but it’s more pervasive than nervousness. It can also be more general. The main difference between anxious and nervous is that anxiety affects your daily life, while nervousness is more centralized to a specific situation.
Let’s use the example of the big work presentation. If you’re nervous about it, you might feel a little jittery and worried about how it will go. If the presentation is causing you anxiety you might lose sleep, see a change in your appetite, and feel somatic symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue. You can also be both nervous and anxious about that presentation, which is a double whammy to your nervous system.
Nervousness is generally experienced in your mind, while anxiety is experienced on a physical and emotional level. When you’re nervous, your focus is on one specific thing. You can feel anxious about that thing, such as the big work presentation example, but it’s different than regular nervousness.
Anxiety is felt on a body level. Some physical symptoms of anxiety include:
Sometimes, these symptoms can turn into a panic attack. Not everyone who experiences anxiety gets panic attacks, but all panic attack symptoms are body-based. Nervousness alone won’t be enough to cause a panic attack.
Anxiety doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can have anxiety, no matter how old you are or how “together” you have it. Anyone can be nervous, too. Most people will feel nervous at some point in their life, but not everyone will experience true anxiety.
The difference between anxious and nervous, mainly, is time, intensity, and focus. You stop being nervous when the situation causing the nervousness is over. Anxiety, however, ebbs and flows. For some people, it sticks around for a long time. If you’re nervous you’ll still be able to do the thing that’s making you nervous. If you’re anxious, the feeling is much more intense and can interfere with being able to go about your life. The focus is also important because nervousness is about just one thing and anxiety can be a lot more general. Sometimes you may not know why you’re anxious, or even that you’re anxious!
That’s the thing about anxiety. You may not know you have it. It’s a lot easier to identify feeling nervous because nervousness is about something. But if you have anxiety, it might not be about any one particular thing.
And a big difference between anxious and nervous is that being nervous most likely won’t prevent you from doing things and living your life. Sure, being nervous isn’t fun and doesn’t feel good when it’s happening, but then it goes away and you live your life. Anxiety isn’t like that.
I mentioned before that nervousness is felt in the mind and anxiety is experienced in the body, and that’s absolutely true. Yes, you can have anxious thoughts, but most symptoms of anxiety are physical. If you’re nervous your hands may get a little sweaty or clammy and you might feel a bit restless, but those symptoms are mild and go away once the situation is over.
For people living with anxiety, life can be an everyday struggle. Ordinary things can feel hard or even impossible. As someone who specializes in treating people with anxiety, I see firsthand the difference between anxious and nervous when it comes to my clients. Those who are nervous about something are back to their old selves in no time. Those who are anxious could feel that way for an indeterminate amount of time. And that causes a lot of distress!
When it comes to managing anxiety, it’s important to focus on your body as well as your thoughts and feelings. There are a number of things you can try to cope with anxiety, but here are a few that I recommend:
Self-care is important for everyone, especially people with anxiety. Taking care of yourself can look like a lot of different things (it’s not just scented candles and bubble baths!) Some ways you can practice self-care are exercising, getting outside, being around friends and family, playing with your pets, meditating, making art, reading, listening to music, or doing a fun hobby. Self-care is also setting boundaries with yourself and others, saying “no,” and taking time off of work.
Breathwork is a necessary practice for people who have anxiety. You can practice different kinds of breathing techniques. One that I like to recommend is square breathing. You breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold at the bottom for a count of four, then repeat 3-5 times.
Another good way to regulate your nervous system with your breath when you feel anxious is to count your inhales and exhales. Your exhales should be longer than your inhales. This calms your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your central nervous system that goes into overdrive when you feel stressed and anxious.
Activities that encourage emotional release may overlap with some of the activities you do to practice self-care. You want the experience to be cathartic and help you feel like you’ve lightened an emotional load afterward. Some examples of activities that encourage emotional release are intense exercise (you could even do jumping jacks or run around the block a few times just to get it all out), dance parties, watching or listening to something that makes you laugh, singing, and crying.
Finally, if you have a difficult time getting through the day and aren’t sure why, or you know you have anxiety but you don’t know what to do about it, it’s time to seek out therapy. Try going to a therapist like myself who specializes in working with people with anxiety.
If you’d like to learn more about how therapy can help you tell the difference between anxious and nervous and manage your anxious symptoms, reach out today (I help teens and adults in the state of New York). I also have an online course, The Path to Peace, that teaches you evidence based strategies for anxiety management, which you can check out here.
Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.