How to tell the difference between anxiety, panic attack and just nervousness

We’ve all experienced that familiar sense of unease and worry. Many of us feel it before going on stage, or even before a first date. Often, the lines between nervousness and anxiety blur. According to a 2017 WHO report, 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders. Thanks to the growing conversation around mental health in India, a lot of people are reaching out and seeking help. So, how you know if it’s a case of mere butterflies in the stomach or something that requires professional intervention?

“The terms anxiety, panic attacks and nervousness are often used interchangeably but they are not the same,” says Delhi-based psychologist Harsheen Arora. Nervousness is what you’d feel before a big presentation or an exam. Most often, you’d know the cause. And you can also come up with a solution. “Nervousness can lead you to do a reality check — you may realise that you may not do well in the exam. So, it can also act as a motivating factor for you to study more,” she says.


While you have some control over nervousness, it’s the other way round with anxiety — it controls you. “It affects you at a physical and emotional level. You feel restless, your heart palpitates and you can’t figure out why. The reason is diffused and scattered as opposed to being specific as in the case of nervousness,” Arora says. “Its emotional impact is also much greater.” If you have a presentation coming up, you would imagine every possible worst case scenario, and the danger begins to feel real. Anxiety makes sure you are unable to stay solution-focussed.

There are different kinds of anxiety like social anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is an extension of anxiety disorder. If you have social anxiety, you feel like avoiding all social situations without being able to pinpoint why. “It will drive you to avoid social interaction and come up with several excuses which are illogical but make perfect sense to you,” she says.

Anxiety featured

In case of a panic attack, you have no control over what your body experiences. You may feel dizzy, have a severe headache or a stomach ache. It lasts for a short duration and usually passes. “Anxiety works in a bell curve. A panic attack is the peak of anxiety,” explains Arora. “After the panic attack, you may feel better. If the intensity is greater, the feeling of dread might last a bit longer.”

If you feel anxious for no specific reason, and if you feel it’s dictating your choices to the point where your personal, professional and day-to-day life is being interrupted, then it’s time to visit a professional. A mental health specialist will be able to equip you with the right tools to overcome anxiety.

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