The difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder - and why having anxiety might benefit you

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We often hear people say “I’m feeling anxious” about a situation or an upcoming event. But is that the same thing as someone who has an anxiety disorder?

“Anxiety is a universal human emotion that usually arises when we have a sense of danger,” said Dr. Judith Laposa, a psychologist and clinician scientist at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.  

“Anxiety is really our body’s natural response to stress,” she explained. “This is a universal emotion. We all feel anxiety at one time or another. Sometimes this is a feeling of fear or apprehension about something that we’re concerned might be coming up in the future. We often have anxiety around things were the outcome is unknown.”

ALSO SEE: Nearly half of Canadians suffer from anxiety — and many believe there’s no cure

Laposa affirms that you are right to say you’re “feeling anxious” when dealing with stressful life events, like a job interview or your first day of school.

“Public speaking is a very common anxiety provoking situation for people,” she said. “That type of anxiety is normal. It’s natural.”

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For many, the emotion manifests itself throughout the body.

“Common physical sensations when we’re feeling anxious could be things like you breathe more rapidly or your heart rate starts to increase,” she explained. “You may start to sweat or have trouble concentrating. For or some people, symptoms of anxiety interfere with their ability to sleep.”

It might be an unpleasant – and overwhelming – feeling, but it can actually be beneficial, Laposa said.

“Sometimes it can have positive benefits – for instance, sometimes it can motivate us to work harder or to prepare to do well in a situation,” she said.

ALSO SEE: Are millennials really the anxiety generation?

“So that kind of ordinary anxiety happens to all of us at one time or another and tends to kind of come and go and not interfere in your life functioning,” she continued. “That would be in contrast to what we would consider an anxiety disorder, where the level of anxiety is actually interfering in someones ability to work or to be student or in their interpersonal relationship.”

A survey conducted by Abacus Data exclusively for Yahoo Canada suggests that six per cent of the population does not know enough about anxiety disorder to say whether or not anxiety is a medical condition. On the other hand, 41 per cent of Canadians consider themselves to be someone who struggles with anxiety, and 30 per cent say they have been diagnosed with anxiety by a medical professional.

“There’s an important distinction between anxiety and anxiety disorder because we’re all going to have anxiety at one point or another,” said Laposa. “It’s not dangerous — it’s actually there to protect you and it’s a signal that you need to stop and pay attention to something. Where you would want to be concerned though is if you’re having anxiety daily and that anxiety is interfering in your ability to do the things you want to do.”

Laposa also said it’s important to note that feeling anxious about certain situations is different than feeling fear.

ALSO SEE: Does anxiety affect more men than women? Statistics might not tell the whole story

“Fear is that very quick fight or flight response where a whole bunch of things happen in your body all at once to mobilize you,” she noted. “If a car comes around the corner unexpectedly, you have to jump out of the way. You’re going to feel some fear and you’re going to have a fight or flight reaction. It’s very quick sudden and intense and there’s a very clear object or threat.”

“In contrast, anxiety tends to be more of like a slow cooking burn of kind of a gradual intensity,” she said. “There’s often not one focal point of danger that someones concerned about. It’s kind of more amorphous and doesn’t have such a rapid onset and offset.”

During the month of October, Yahoo Canada is delving into anxiety and why it’s so prevalent among Canadians. Read more content from our multi-part series here.

Has anxiety ever been beneficial to you? Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

Abacus Data, a market research firm based in Ottawa, conducted a survey for Yahoo Canada to test public attitudes towards anxiety as a medical condition, including social stigmas and cultural impacts. The study was an online survey of 1,500 Canadians residents, age 18 and over, who responded between Aug. 21 to Sept. 2, 2019. A random sample of panelists were invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.53%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted according to census data to ensure the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region.