Feeling nervous is part of a normal, healthy life. It is an adaptive emotion that helps us know when we are safe, when we are in physical or emotional danger, and when we should feel afraid. It triggers the fight or flight response in us which can help us run faster in a race, study harder for an exam, or focus on the path of least traffic to get to the hospital in time. Situations such as: preparing to take an exam, attending a job interview, or meeting a blind date can yield butterflies in the stomach, trouble sleeping the night before, rapid heart rate and stomach troubles. These are all normal and common symptoms of nervousness that everyone experiences from time to time.
However, for some people these typical experiences are much more significant. Instead of losing sleep the night before a doctor’s appointment, they lose sleep for days or weeks in anticipation. Loss of appetite immediately before a presentation turns into binge eating or avoiding food for countless meals leading up to the anxiety-provoking event.
Nervousness turns into an anxiety issue when the daily functioning is disrupted. Losing one or two nights of sleep is not as concerning as losing one week of a good night’s rest. Changes in appetite that result in significant weight gain or loss, inability to focus at work or school, or seeing a significant drop in performance are all signs that “just plain nerves” are not to blame.
Those with anxiety feel not only nervous often but also worried. Sometimes the worry is about something specific and other times the worry is more global. These thoughts become persistent and overtime habitual, making the person feel as if there is genuinely something to worry about even if there is not. This causes significant distress and can exhibit in physical forms via stomach troubles, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, headaches, feeling weak, and changes to sleep and appetite.
So it is anxiety or just nerves? If you are feeling worried and nervous for at least 1 week and it is affecting any part of your usual routine or functioning, it is more likely the former. Contact your physician or a mental health professional for tips on how to reduce your anxiety.