We all feel anxious or afraid from time to time, but fear is different from anxiety and anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean an Anxiety Disorder. So let’s define some terms. Fear is a negative emotion in response to the belief that something is threatening or painful. Anxiety is a heightened state of worry, unease, or discomfort, a fear of sorts, but is the concern that there may be a threat. Anxiety isn’t in response to what is happening at the moment, but what will happen or could happen in the future.
For example, anyone would be afraid if someone broke into their house. A home invasion is a threat to one’s property and safety. This isn’t being anxious about what could happen, but fearful in the face of what is happening. Sometimes fear is the response to a threat which is only perceived. For instance, if someone startles you, your heart will speed up, your muscles will tense, and you might even scream, all as though you were genuinely in danger, even though you quickly realize you are safe.
Anxiety, in contrast, can be illustrated by the worry and concern that someone might break into your home. Sometimes there is a reason to be anxious and other times there is not. If you live in a high crime neighborhood, have no lock on your door, or have seen someone lurking around, there is reason to worry. Your anxiety is appropriate. It is true that we all feel anxious from time to time, but if you have secured your home to a reasonable degree and there hasn’t been a rash of crime near you, devoting a lot of time to what might happen is not helpful or rational. This brings us to Anxiety Disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, is an ongoing, pervasive anxiety about any and all things that could happen. Social Anxiety and Phobias are worries about potential threats in specific situations. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is residual anxiety from things that did happen, but are now no longer a threat. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder are more complicated to define, but are still fear reactions without a clear and present threat. When anxiety begins to interfere with a person’s life, when they can’t do what they need or want to do because the worry becomes too great, and this worry persists for an extended period of time, then it is time to seek diagnosis and treatment.