What Does Normal Anxiety Look Like?

Experiencing anxiety is not a mental health problem. Having what is sometimes called abnormal (neurotic) anxiety can indicate several things, including a mental health issue.

Sometimes the edge between normal and neurotic anxiety blurs, but by definition, they are distinct in the following three ways:

1. Normal Anxiety is Appropriate to the Situation

Experiencing anxiety before job interviews, school exams, moving, or taking a vacation is common. Some people have trouble eating, sleeping, and focusing when they are anxious, but they go to the job interview, take the exam, pack their belongings, or get on a plane for Tahiti.

Abnormal anxiety exceeds the situation or blows the danger out of proportion. If a parent keeps his or her child indoors out of fear the child will get hurt, the parent’s anxiety is keeping the child from healthy developmental experiences. The child could pick up the anxiety from the parent and carry it into adolescence and adulthood as well.

2. Normal Anxiety Does Not Need To Be Repressed

Normal anxiety can be very uncomfortable, but people come to terms with it. They may hate the feeling, but they do not suppress it. Right before playing in a piano recital, the performer might have forgotten everything, feel nauseous, and have the shakes, but they walk out on stage and start playing.

If, on the morning of a job interview, the job seeker stays in bed instead of going to the interview, their anxiety is being repressed or held captive by the ineffective coping mechanism of pretending to be ill. Doing this once does not indicate an anxiety disorder, but behaving the same way repeatedly indicates something.

3. Normal Anxiety Can Be Used Constructively

Anxiety can prompt us to face the problem or event causing our discomfort. In this way, it is a tool for personal growth and problem-solving. Many people report channeling their anxiety and using it constructively.

Problematic anxiety is destructive because it paralyzes people instead of stimulating their creative juices. If a person continuously freezes when taking school exams, possibly preventing them from realizing his or her potential, the anxiety is of the abnormal variety.

Difficult to Avoid
Ultimately, our experience of anxiety comes from uncertainty about the meaning of life, seeing a gulf between ourselves and others (feeling alone), the responsibility of creating our own life (i.e, making choices, taking risks), and the knowledge of our mortality (loss of self). A person might get anxious just reading that previous sentence.

How we come to terms with the uncertainties and mysteries of life is, at least for now, part of the human experience. Though anxiety is a largely unwanted feeling, it is part of our survival mechanism and responsible for much creative thought and invention.

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

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