If you’re trembling, sweating, and darting your eyes around the room, is it your nerves or anxiety? It could be both.
Everyone feels nervous or anxious (or both) from time to time, but feelings of anxiety can be more severe and longer lasting.
Both anxiety and nervousness are a result of your body’s stress response, but they may not have the same causes or symptoms.
Understanding the difference between the two can help you better cope with each.
At a glance, here are the main differences between anxiety and nervousness:
- Anxiety has a clinical definition, while nerves do not.
- Anxiety symptoms can be mild or severe, but nervousness is usually considered mild.
- People often feel nervous before a stressful situation, while anxiety can come up anytime.
- Nervousness typically goes away after the stressful event is over, while anxiousness may persist.
These are other differences:
Anxiety is a symptom of a formal mental health diagnosis like generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines it as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Anxiety often relates to anticipation and fear of a future event that may or may not happen.
What some people call “nerves” does not have a clinical definition because they’re not a formal medical condition.
Feeling nervous can also be explained differently from person to person. But, typically, it’s described as those jittery feelings you get right before something stressful, like taking an important phone call or going to a job interview. It’s similar to the anxiety feeling but different from living with an anxiety disorder, which involves recurrent or persistent symptoms.
The main difference between anxiety as a disorder, and nervousness or anxiety as an emotional response or symptom is the intensity.
Living with an anxiety disorder often feels more intense and distressing than experiencing nervousness in a given situation.
Occasional mild anxiety symptoms and feeling nervous can look the same. You might:
- feel antsy
- have sweaty palms
- feel unfocused or dizzy
Feeling nervous usually goes away after the stressful situation is over — once the date is done, the speech is given, or the job interview ends.
But, anxiety symptoms may appear across situations and repeat over time, and they may make functioning more challenging. Sometimes, anxiety isn’t linked to any evident incident or stressor.
Severe anxiety symptoms are more likely to be described as panic.
How the symptoms affect you
You may feel nervous before giving a speech or going on a first date, but despite your shaking hands, nerves don’t usually stop you from doing the stressful thing.
Anxiety, on the other hand, often leads to changes in routines or habits. If you persistently feel anxious, you may start to avoid things related to the stressor altogether.
Nervousness can involve a number of sensations before or during a stressful incident. You may experience:
- sweating or clamminess
- restlessness (like being unable to stop tapping your foot)
- dry mouth
- feeling short of breath or hyperventilating
- self-doubt or negative thinking
- trouble concentrating
If you feel nervous all the time, it may actually be signs of an anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders vary depending on your unique circumstances, what causes your anxiety, and how severe the symptoms are.
Anxiety symptoms include:
- fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- fear of dying
- difficulty concentrating or feeling easily distracted
- challenges with memory
- feeling nervous or on edge
- feeling frustrated or irritable
- physical symptoms, like:
Some people may get caught in negative thought loops or have frightening mental images in the midst of an anxiety attack.
You can also experience:
- depersonalization: when you feel disconnected from yourself
- derealization: when you feel disconnected from your surroundings
Everyone can experience these symptoms from time or time, but if these are severe or affect your ability to function in your work, relationships, and life in general, you may have an anxiety disorder.
There are several types of anxiety disorder that are diagnosed based on what’s causing your anxiety:
Do you think you might have an anxiety disorder? Our anxiety quiz can help you figure out if you should consider getting support.
Both feeling nervous and being anxious can be managed.
If you’re not sure if what you’re feeling is anxiety versus nervousness, consider:
- tracking your moods
- writing down how often you feel what you’re feeling
- noting if you recognize what’s causing it
However, only a licensed mental health professional can provide an accurate diagnosis.
If your nerves are due to something specific, like public speaking, consider managing by:
To calm down right here and now, you may want to:
- practice deep breathing
- name what you’re feeling
- use a grounding exercise
- exercise (a quick run or set of jumping jacks could help you spend that restless tension)
- focus on something else that makes you feel good
All the tips above can also help you manage anxiety in the moment and in the long run. But, if you think you’re living with the disorder, it’s highly advisable that you reach out to a mental health professional. They’ll be able to explore possible causes of your anxiety and the best approach to cope with your specific situation.
Anxiety is typically treated with a combination of:
The main difference between anxiety and nervousness is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Anxiety is a mental health condition while anxiousness is a temporary emotional response. Both can be managed.
If what you’re feeling is interfering with your ability to function, consider reaching out for support.
Not sure where to get started? You can check out Psych Central’s hub for finding mental health support.