Nervousness Vs. Anxiety: What's The Difference?
For those not suffering from anxiety, it can often get confused with just being a nervous person. However, although they can be similar, nervousness and anxiety are not the same thing.
We’re here to arm you with the right information to confront this misinformation when it happens, as well as reducing the amount of confusion around the subject. With so much unnecessary stigma around the subject of mental health as a whole, speaking up for yourself can help not only you but also others dealing with the same issues.
What Is Nervousness?
It helps to think of nerves the same way most people think of prom night. We know, it’s a weird analogy… but stay with us here.
When you’re getting ready for prom, you’re likely a mix of feelings—excited to see what the night will hold, nervous that you won’t be ready on time, feeling pressure to be dressed and ready when your date arrives. You may experience some physical symptoms, like sweaty palms and butterflies in your stomach, but it isn’t strictly a feeling of dread or anxiety.
Nervousness is a lot like that. It’s related to an event, which can be good (like prom) or bad (like an impending blood draw). Unlike anxiety (which we’ll discuss in-depth next), nervousness is a short-term, temporary response to something. It goes away after that event is over, and can be controlled fairly easily by deep breathing and pushing through it.
Nervousness can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, but it is not a diagnosis by itself. It is caused by the same stress reaction in the body that causes anxiety but, because it is related to an event and not an imbalance in the brain, the body is much more easily able to return itself to homeostasis. Those with anxiety aren’t nearly as likely.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety, on the other hand, is an official medical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly referred to as the DSM).
While there are many different “types” of anxiety disorder— Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc.— they all generally show similar symptoms. Specific circumstances and triggers may vary. Here are just some of the most common:
- An increase in heart rate
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling a sense of impending doom
- GI problems
Unlike just being nervous, anxiety is often a chronic problem. It can impact every facet of a person’s life, from their job to their relationships and even how they feel about themselves.
With anxiety, the body’s stress response keeps being constantly triggered even outside of the context of a stressful event. This constant “fight or flight” feeling also leads to a steady release of a stress hormone called cortisol, which builds up in the body causing physical issues alongside the mental symptoms already occurring.
That’s why people with anxiety often feel so fatigued. Their body is constantly at war with itself.
What Are The Treatment Options For Nervousness?
Because nervousness is a response to a specific event and is an acute problem, time is the best treatment option. Once you’re through the event, your nerves will relax, and you’ll be back to “normal.”
Nervousness doesn’t really need any treatment other than to develop healthy coping mechanisms if you’re aware a stressful event is coming up. Supplements may help reduce the symptoms in the moment. However, nervousness is not something a doctor would be likely to prescribe medication for as the side effects may outweigh the benefits.
And, while it doesn’t help during the actual stressful event, planning for these situations ahead of time, including having a game plan if things go wrong, is one of the best ways to combat nerves. Preparation can significantly help, especially if the event is a job interview or big test.
What Are The Treatment Options For Anxiety?
With anxiety, treatment is much more complicated. Much of that depends on the exact type of anxiety that you are suffering from and your preferences.
Many people are prescribed medication to help treat their anxiety when it happens, specifically with benzodiazepines like Xanax or Valium. Medications like these work to stop the neurotransmitters from transmitting the messages that trigger the anxiety response in the brain.
However, they also have addictive potential as well as other side effects that some people feel outweigh their benefits. Also, many people may not have the option to go see a doctor, whether that is a lack of transportation, healthcare, money, etc.
For those who don’t want to or who are unable to take prescription medication to manage their anxiety, there are plenty of natural supplements out there. Adaptogens like Rhodiola Rosea and amino acids like L-Theanine help supplement GABA production in the brain. This is the main “inhibitory” neurotransmitter that stops chemical anxiety messages from reaching their destination.
Learning more about the supplements that are available and finding the right combination to help reduce your anxiety is well worth the time and effort. There is a lot of information out there, so make sure you’re always looking for reputable sources.
Diet can also be a helpful way to manage anxiety with whole, natural foods. Knowing the benefits of eating a healthy diet and how it can help the body naturally fight off the effects of stress and anxiety is actually fairly easy, once you know where to look.
Some foods have the potential to naturally boost mood and help reduce anxiety without needing to take medication.
Consider adding foods like these to your diet to feel better overall:
- Dark chocolate
Therapy is one other way that people use to treat their anxiety. While it doesn’t get rid of anxiety, it can help to identify potential triggers, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and just get the negative thoughts out of your head.
CBT (or cognitive behavioral therapy) has shown a lot of potential specifically for managing anxiety and depression. This branch of therapy identifies negative thought patterns and helps you to replace them with healthier lines of thinking. While we believe everyone can benefit from therapy, for people struggling with anxiety, this is extra true.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms For Stressful Events
For both nervousness and anxiety disorders, developing healthy coping mechanisms is key.
Relaxation techniques are great for this, especially breathing exercises. They can help take the focus away from the mind and direct it to a specific function of the body. Not only does this help slow down any rapid breathing that may be happening, but it also gives you the ability to help your brain do what it does best—return your body back to its neutral, set point.
Many people rely on a specific breathing technique known as 4-7-8 breathing. With the 4-7-8 breathing technique, you’ll focus on your in breath for 4 counts, holding your breath for 7 counts, and your out breath for 8 counts. You’ll want to find a quiet, comfortable place and repeat the 4-7-8 cycle at least four times for the greatest benefit.
It can help to practice this a few times a day while not going through times of stress so that you’ll be ready when you need to perform it as a coping mechanism. For best results, breathe in through your nose (with your tongue resting just behind your top teeth) and out through your mouth. The benefits are immediate.
Exercise can be another great coping mechanism to rely on during stressful periods in your life, no matter how long or short. With exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins that not only boost happiness and reduce pain but also work to counteract the effect that cortisol has on the body.
These endorphins can also help improve sleep, which naturally helps reduce feelings of stress and being overwhelmed. Even just five minutes of exercise can trigger endorphin release, so you don’t have to dedicate a lot of time to it to see the benefits.
Talk To Someone:
And finally, just having someone to talk to is incredibly beneficial, and not just in times of stress. Having people in your life that you know you can count on and go to without fear of judgement is more important than most people think.
Anxiety and stress often grow unchecked in isolation, further isolating people by making them think that no one cares or wants to hear about their problems. Knowing ahead of time that you have someone that will be there for you unconditionally can help you when you are going through stressful events, no matter what your brain may be trying to trick you into thinking.
The Difference Between Nervousness And Anxiety: The Bottom Line
Nervousness and anxiety are definitely linked, but they are not the same. Everyone will be nervous at some point in life (before a big job interview, for example), but anxiety is a chronic, sometimes debilitating mental health condition. While supplements and healthy coping mechanisms can help manage the symptoms of both, only anxiety qualifies as a diagnosable illness.