When Worry Becomes Worrisome: The Difference Between Normal Stress and Anxiety Disorders

200-sittingBy Kerstin Brown –

You’re worried about X, Y and Z. You obsess about them for hours every day, maybe for weeks. It’s safe to assume that most of us have experienced stress in one form or another, whether it’s a deadline at work, a family conflict or an important decision. But, contrary to popular belief, there is a difference between normal stress and anxiety.

Dr. Kimberly Cress, Medical Director at the TMS Serenity Center, says the main difference between worry and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is that the symptoms start to cause dysfunction and are more frequent with GAD. Excessive stress and worry about a variety of everyday problems that is disproportionate to the events and that linger six months or more can indicate GAD. One recent study found that people without GAD tended to worry an average of 55 minutes a day, while those with GAD worried for 310 minutes each day. That’s one hour of worry compared to five.

Stress and worry are the body’s reactions to a circumstance or situation that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. While people typically associate stress with negative responses, it can be caused by any change – even positive ones.

Anxiety is a general term for
several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension and worry. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America, affecting around 18 percent of the United States’ population in any given year and almost 30 percent of American adults across their lifespan. The  average age of onset is 31 years-old and affects twice as many women as men.

Anxiety can become a problem when your worry flip switch gets stuck to the “on” position. “It starts to become dysfunctional,” stated Dr. Cress. “You feel like it’s affecting your relationships, work and ability to enjoy yourself. You can’t turn it off.”

How do you know whether this is typical stress or worry or if you have GAD? Dr. Cress noted some major differences:

Normal Worry:

Worrying does not interfere with your relationships, job or social life.
You feel that your concerns are controllable and can be dealt  with at a later time.
Your worries cause only mild distress.
A specific cause initiated your worrying.
Worry only lasts for a brief period with a beginning and an end.
Worry isn’t usually accompanied by physical or psychological symptoms.


Worrying significantly interferes with work or social activities.
You feel that your worrying is out of your control.
Your worries are very distressing and pervasive.
Worrying began for no reason.
Three or more physical or psychological symptoms occur with your worrying, such as sleep problems, irritability, tense muscles, problems concentrating, fatigue or restlessness.

Chronic worry and stress can also trigger a host of health issues. The problem occurs when fight or flight is triggered daily by excessive worrying and anxiety. The fight or flight response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, such as cortisol. These hormones can boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides (blood fats) that can be used by the body for fuel. The hormones also cause physical reactions such as:

Difficulty swallowing
Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
Fast heartbeat
Irritable bowel with diarrhea and/or constipation
Muscle aches
Muscle tension
Nausea, knots in the stomach
Nervous energy
Rapid breathing
Shortness of breath
rembling and twitching

When to Get Help:

Many will see their general physician numerous times to address their physical complaints, but they are not aware that GAD is the cause. When individuals struggle with multiple physical symptoms throughout the body, the common denominator is anxiety.

GAD is typically treated with psychotherapy, medications or both. However, when an individual cannot tolerate medications due to side effects, or they continue to suffer from anxiety despite numerous medications, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy is a great treatment option.

If you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek help. Contact a mental health professional
if you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, excessive worry or if you feel stress is affecting your health. “We’ve had great success treating patients who suffer from anxiety with TMS Therapy,” Dr. Cress stated. “We’re able to turn the worry switch ‘off’ and get patients back to enjoying their lives again.”