The Difference Between a Disorder and a Feeling

OCT. 10, 2019

By Luna Greenstein


Most people have experienced anxiety at some point. Running late for an important meeting, getting ready before a date, speaking publicly for the first time—anxiety is within the scope of the human experience. In fact, it’s a perfectly normal reaction to stressful situations.

This fact is both positive and negative for people who live with anxiety conditions. It’s beneficial because most people have some understanding of what anxiety feels like, and may be more sympathetic to someone who experiences daily symptoms. But because anxiety is “normalized,” it can often be downplayed as a feeling everyone experiences rather than a serious health condition. Example: “Oh I know exactly how you feel. I had a panic attack last week when I thought I lost my wallet.”

These comments can make individuals experiencing an actual anxiety disorder feel dismissed. So, it’s important to learn the difference between anxiety, the feeling, and Anxiety, the condition (capitalization used for distinction).

What Does an Anxiety Disorder Feel Like?

It’s easy to assume that because we all experience anxiety, we have an idea of what living with Anxiety might feel like. But that’s simply not the case. Experiencing anxiety includes being nervous or stressed out in situations that naturally create those feelings, like a job interview. Living with an Anxiety condition makes you feel overwhelming fear and distress constantly—even in everyday situations. There are many types of Anxiety disorders, but they all share these symptoms:


  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger


  • Pounding or racing heart and shortness of breath
  • Upset stomach
  • Sweating, tremors and twitches
  • Headaches, fatigue and insomnia
  • Upset stomach, frequent urination or diarrhea

A friend of mine who lives with Anxiety once described her condition like this: Imagine your mind as a typical four-burner stove top. At all times, there’s a small pot at a rolling boil on the back burner. That’s Anxiety. Every possible thing you could ever be anxious about is floating around in this pot, churning all day long. Depending on what happens throughout the day, a thought can pop up out of the pot and intrude your thinking—“Oh God…did I lock the front door?” Then it goes back down—“Yes, of course.” Then other thoughts pop up—“Why did my boss give me that look the other day?” “Am I saying the right things?” “Do I look okay?” “Do I smell bad?” The churn is constant.

If something goes wrong, the churn worsens. And the small pot might even be replaced with a medium-sized pot. More water. More pressure. More thoughts. On days when Anxiety is severe, a large pot will slam onto a front burner—your anxious thoughts taking center stage on the forefront of your mind.

Panic attacks? Those things so many people joke about having? Here’s what those really feel like… Your heart beats with an increasing pace. Your chest tightens around your pounding heart—creating a painful tension. It hurts to breathe. You gasp for air, as if trying to breathe in high-altitude where oxygen is sparse. Your thoughts are racing as quickly as your heart is pounding. Your stomach is in knots. You feel nauseous and dizzy and afraid. You feel trapped. You start to cry. Then you cry so hard you give yourself a headache. All of this happens within minutes, but it feels like years.

This is what it’s like to experience an Anxiety disorder. There are 40 million Americans who deal with this on a regular basis.

How to Show Sympathy

So, if you experience symptoms of anxiety—but never to this extent—be mindful of what these 40 million people may be going through. If a friend is having an anxiety attack, don’t assume you know exactly how she is feeling or undermine her struggle. Be understanding and supportive by consoling her in a way that’s specific to the situation.

Let’s say she is having a panic attack after having a fight with by her boyfriend, Tom. You may not understand why she is hyperventilating or rolled into a ball crying her eyes out. You may even think she’s overreacting. But remember that someone with Anxiety cannot control this type of behavior—it is a symptom of their mental illness. And she needs your support.

You could say something along the lines of: "I know your feelings are so overwhelming in this moment. I know you feel afraid that the pain and problems with Tom are never going to stop. But they will. You will get through this, and you may even laugh about it later. A year from now, this won't matter." The key is to say something soothing and calming while still acknowledging her pain.

Sometimes it can make a world of difference just to validate another person’s struggle, even if you don’t fully understand what they’re going through. You can be the person who makes someone feel accepted and supported during their darkest and most difficult days.


Luna Greenstein is communications manager at NAMI.

Note: This article was originally published in April 2017.


We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices

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JAN, 19, 2018 04:40:18 PM
Charles Brusovich Jr.
Very good analogy with the burner, pot of water. When I am in suffering, it is exactly like the boiling water, endlessly churning away, with no way to turn down the heat.

MAY, 29, 2017 09:58:15 AM
Richard Davidson
Very clear distinction drawn here.

MAY, 15, 2017 06:08:48 PM
Excellent article both for those diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder and those who think they understand the condition. Most people are not very sympathetic to this problem. This article provides clarification and enlightenment.

Also, the post by Christine O'Brien Hillstead resonated with my particular symptoms and responses to depression and anxiety issues. Thanks:)

I feel better knowing I'm not alone in coping with anxiety, panic, depression, and feeling overwhelmed.

MAY, 14, 2017 11:20:13 AM
Lesa Elmore
Thank you!!!! I had my husband read this article. I have suffered from anxiety for most of my life. I believe he understands that I have a condition. I hope he now will help not be so frustrated. Especially when I cancel@ last minute. Everything in this article is very truthful!!! I almost didn't respond to this article because I'm worried about judged....

MAY, 07, 2017 12:31:52 PM
B. Harrison
Informative. Gives reader some insight on what those of us who have anxiety disorder face on a daily basis. A form of mental paralysis.

MAY, 03, 2017 11:30:37 AM
Rini Moon
I feel like the "no, you don't really understand" is very accusatory and more than that very harmful to all the undiagnosed sufferers of mental disorders. There is a balance between making sure people understand the sufferer isn't just overreacting without being dismissive to everyone else. Maybe the supposedly normal person does know what it's like to have a severe panic attack and maybe he's an undiagnosed sufferer himself.

APR, 30, 2017 08:43:06 PM
Gloria Lane
Article was very enlightening. Thank You

APR, 30, 2017 02:36:56 PM
Great explanation for someone unfamiliar with anxiety disorders. Panic attacks
Can be extremely debilitating. I will share this article.

APR, 29, 2017 01:46:10 PM
All I can say is "THANK YOU"! This article came at a time it was SO needed. I have never read anything that explained "Anxiety Disorder" so clearly. Two family members suffer from this constantly and I am hoping this blog will teach the rest of us to validate and be more supportive.

APR, 29, 2017 06:50:41 AM
Victoria Wiggins
Thanks, my daughter experience these feelings​ daily, good to read about helpful tips to aid us in are struggling. This condition is like a never ending funeral!!!

APR, 28, 2017 10:24:30 PM
Christine O'Brien Hillstead
Anxiety manifests in so many ways. It's symptoms are not just limited to racing worries, hyperventilating and what is commonly associated with the word. Anxiety can also show as withdrawal and an inability to physically move. I call it freezing. It can last for several days and includes a lack of worry, even a lack of caring. It always follows an extended period of feeling of overwhelmed. I'm not a person who is constantly worrying. Yet life can hand you more than what you can manage. My symptoms from depression and anxiety most often express themselves physically. I am generally a happy person so don't think a happy person can't suffer from these disorders.

APR, 28, 2017 06:20:02 PM
Sounds pretty gay. I'm gay BTW.

APR, 28, 2017 04:12:50 PM
Nancy Jordan
Very informative please sign me up for the blog

APR, 28, 2017 01:46:46 PM
Although I've had panic attacks like the one you've described, I've also had many other panic attacks with completely different symptoms. I don't think it's a good idea to describe panic attacks as if they're one size fits all.

APR, 27, 2017 02:19:58 PM
Thank you for this article. I am still trying, arguing, fighting when docs tell me it is depression. I then say anxiety is a symptom of depression, but I am NOT depressed. I am sad about certain issues in my family, but I do not feel depressed. What overwhelms me is -at times- terrifying anxiety, panic.

APR, 27, 2017 12:17:51 PM
The boiling pot -- yes. I have no control over what goes into that pot, how high the flame is underneath the pot, when it will boil over, or when the water will eventually all evaporate and the pan will start burning. My friends know I don't like to make plans till the last minute, but they don't know why. This is why.

APR, 27, 2017 10:03:03 AM
Francine Farina
Having struggled with GAD for years and Panic Attacks in the 90s, I applaud your article! The general public still stigmatizes, medical professionals still disregard it or try to minimize it. There has been some improvement and that gives us sufferers hope.

APR, 26, 2017 06:49:16 PM
Thanks for your explanation of panic attacks it is so hard to explain to someone what is exactly happening. One of the thoughts for those who are experiencing an attack is that you feel like you are dying and no one can help you. You feel so alone.

APR, 26, 2017 03:33:20 AM
I suffer from anxiety and am female. I'm just curious as to why you refer to "her" throughout the articilr. Does it mainly affect females? Maybe a hormonal thing? I'm just trying to understand the condition so I can talk to my Dr. Sometimes I feel like he brushs it off as "it's a woman thing" and doesn't think it's real or take me seriously. I was laid off more than a year ago and since then it's gotten so bad I have a hard time just leaving the house, especially alone.

APR, 24, 2017 09:57:41 PM
Lizanne Corbit
Very well written. Understanding this importance is so important, especially because of the normalization that has occurred surrounding anxiety. Helping people to clearly see the difference between feeling and disorder is hugely helpful.

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