Everyone gets nervous from time to time. For instance, if you hate public speaking but have to give a presentation, your heart might race, your palms may sweat, and you may feel more restless than usual. That's totally common. But what does it mean if you find that your nervousness never seems to go away? How can you tell if your nerves are actually something more? Well, according to mental health professionals, there is one major difference between nervousness and anxiety that you should be aware of.
"While related, the difference between nervousness and anxiety is one of degrees," psychotherapist, Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, tells Bustle. Nervousness is like a fly that gets into your car, he says. It bothers you for a few minutes but eventually you can roll the window down the fly finds its way out. No more problems. Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is like an allergic reaction to a bee sting. "It has an intense emotion and physical effect that alters your journey and leaves you terrified of the next bee that you are convinced will come along and sting you."
In other words, nervousness is more situational. It comes and goes, depending on specific events, such as a big presentation or your wedding day.
Chronic anxiety is a diagnosable mental illness. It's long-standing and usually out of a person's control, if left untreated. Dr. John Mayer, Clinical Psychologist at Doctor On Demand, tells Bustle that chronic anxiety includes at least three of the following symptoms: restlessness, fatigue, lack of concentration, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance.
So although the two may seem similar, it's really not. According to experts, here are some subtle physical differences between simple nervousness and chronic anxiety.
You Feel Worn Down All The Time
Since nervousness is fleeting, the physical toll it may take on your body shouldn't be that bad. Getting some more sleep can possibly help. But if you have chronic anxiety, Annie Wright, licensed psychotherapist and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling tells Bustle, you'll feel it in your body. "You'll be feeling constantly tired, like no matter how much sleep you get you'll still feel an underlying level of exhaustion," Wright says. That's one way to tell it's anxiety and not just nervousness. And if you find that anxiety is affecting your sleep, talking with someone you trust or a professional can give you the tools you need to make sure anxiety doesn't wear you down.
You Have Trouble Focusing
Having trouble concentrating, whether it’s at work, or in conversations, or when doing tasks like reading, is a sign of chronic anxiety, Wright says. When you're nervous, concentrating may be difficult, but it is doable. When you have chronic anxiety, it might be a lot more difficult for you to be present. Your mind may go blank and you might have trouble concentrating on what's happening in the now. Or, you may have difficulty concentrating on anything else other than what is currently worrying you. If this is the case, breathing techniques or meditation may serve to slow your mind down, and help re-focus you. Talk therapy can also be helpful if you are struggling to bring your mind back to the present.
You're Always Irritable
Being nervous for a major event can make you snap. But when you're dealing with chronic anxiety, Wright says, "You’re living with a low capacity for stressors ... the small stuff or the things you’re not 'supposed' to sweat over." As a result, you may not have as much patience, and smaller tasks may seem overwhelming. If you are experiencing mood swings that may be the result of anxiety, talking about what's weighing you down mentally, either with someone you care about or a therapist, could help to lift your mood.
There's Tension All Over Your Body
"If you’re emotionally and mentally wound up in knots, your body is likely holding onto the tension leading to a general feeling of tightness," Wright says. If you're just nervous, the tightness, and general tension in your muscles will eventually go away. If it doesn't, it might be a sign of chronic anxiety, and exercises like yoga might help to take that tension out of your body.
You Can't Seem To Get To Sleep
"Whether that’s trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, having restless or unfulfilling sleep, etc., those are signs you may have chronic anxiety," Wright says. Since nervousness is situational, having trouble sleeping should only occur during those handful of nights before a big event. But if it's long lasting, that may be a sign that it's something more, and it may be something you want to discuss with a doctor or a therapist.
You Get Startled Very Easily
Feeling a heightened “startle response" is another physical difference between nervousness and chronic anxiety. "When you live with anxiety, your nervous system is on overdrive," Wright says. "So when ambulance sirens flare up or someone accidentally slams a door at work, you jump or startle easily." Nervousness can make you jumpy, but not over long periods of time for the smallest things.
According to Wright, if one, two or more of the above signs are present, you may be dealing with chronic anxiety. "Seek help," she says. "Therapy can help alleviate this and get you some relief."
So if you feel like your nervousness may be something more, don't be afraid to get help. It's hard to enjoy life when you're constantly worried but getting help can provide you with the necessary tools to better cope.