Nervousness: Is It Different Than Anxiety?

By Terez Malka, MD
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July 12, 2022

Everyone experiences nervousness, but if it starts to interfere with your daily life, it may be something more serious.

It can be tricky to distinguish between anxiety and nervousness, but there are some key differences. 

The main difference is that nervousness occurs for a short period of time and is usually triggered by a specific event or situation. 

On the other hand, anxiety disorders cause ongoing symptoms that are severe enough to inhibit your ability to go to work or school or socialize normally.

In this article, I’ll explain what nervousness is, how it differs from anxiety and panic attacks, how to manage it, and when to call your provider for help.

What Is Nervousness?

Everyone experiences nervousness in their own way, and it can feel differently in different situations. 

Being nervous can feel like dread, anxiety, excitement, or nausea

You may feel sick or have a fluttery feeling in your stomach. 

It usually happens before big events or challenging situations such as a big exam, sports competition, or work presentation.

Nervousness isn’t always associated with negative emotions. 

You might feel nervous before something you’re really excited about, like a big performance or first date.

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Symptoms

Nervousness isn’t a medical condition, so there are no specific symptoms that make up its diagnostic criteria. 

That said, if you’re nervous, you might experience:

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety refers to a group of conditions with distinctly different symptoms. 

The main types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This is the most common form of anxiety. People with GAD experience ongoing feelings of anxiety or dread that interfere with their life. These feelings can last months or years. They may feel restless, tired, irritable, and have trouble sleeping.
  • Panic disorder: People with panic disorder have regular panic attacks, which are periods of intense physical or emotional sensations of fear and anxiety. These can include increased heart rate, chest tightness, or difficulty breathing or controlling your thoughts. Sometimes panic attacks are responses to stressful situations, but they can also have no clear trigger.
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD): This condition is a severe fear of social situations. It can cause ongoing, intense fear of being around or socializing with others, which can significantly impact a person’s life. People with SAD may find it hard to go to work, school, social events, and more. SAD can cause a rapid heartbeat, upset stomach, tense muscles, trembling, and feelings of fear.
  • Phobia-related disorders: These conditions are marked by a severe fear of certain situations or things. People with phobia disorders feel disproportionately large amounts of fear in relation to actual danger or risk. They may have irrational fear or worry about their phobia and take extensive steps to avoid it.

Causes

A wide range of things can cause nervousness. 

Many of them are everyday events, such as a test, performance, presentation, or special event. 

This is normal, and your feelings of nervousness should go away after the thing making you nervous.

However, if your feelings persist, impact your daily life, and occur even without a stressful trigger, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Researchers haven’t identified clear causes of anxiety, but factors that may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder include:

  • Genetic factors such as a family history of mental health conditions
  • Significantly stressful or traumatic life events
  • Childhood trauma

Certain things can exacerbate anxiety symptoms, including:

  • Other mental health conditions
  • Physical health conditions like thyroid issues
  • Caffeine
  • Use of alcohol and certain illicit drugs
  • Some medications
  • Sleep deprivation

How It’s Different From Anxiety

The primary difference between nervousness and anxiety is that nervousness is temporary and triggered by a specific situation, but anxiety is persistent and impacts your daily life.

Treatment

Nervousness is a normal part of life and doesn’t require medical treatment. 

However, coping techniques like breathing exercises and meditation may help you manage nervousness.  

If you have anxiety, your provider may recommend talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Prevention

You can’t always prevent nervousness, and that’s okay. 

Feeling nervous is a normal reaction to stressful and exciting life events.

However, if you want to manage or reduce your nervousness, you can try: 

  • Preparation: Nervousness can be worsened by fear of the unknown. If you have an upcoming presentation or exam, you may be able to reduce potential nerves by practicing or studying. 
  • Breathing exercises: Research has shown that short guided breathing practices may reduce heart rate and blood pressure. 
  • Talking to someone: Discussing your feelings with a friend or loved one may help you manage your emotions. 
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When to See a Medical Provider

If you have frequent feelings of nervousness that are severe enough to impact your daily life and prevent you from participating in activities you enjoy, or if you are concerned you may have an anxiety disorder, speak with a doctor or mental health care professional. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the signs of nervousness?
Nervousness is not a clinical medical condition, so there are no specific signs or symptoms defining it. However, when people are nervous, they often feel jittery, nauseous, shaky, and have an elevated heart rate.
What can cause nervousness?
Stressful and exciting life events can cause nervousness. You might feel nervous before a big exam at school, an important presentation at work, or a sports competition you’ve been preparing for.
What is the difference between anxiety and nervousness?
Nervousness symptoms are temporary, relatively mild, triggered by a specific situation, and should go away after the event. Anxiety symptoms are more persistent, impact your daily life, and may occur without any trigger.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.

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