Expert sheds light on the difference between nervousness and anxiety

Featured Faculty

Jacob Sommers | December 20, 2019

man curled up in a ball in a corner

Anxiety disorders are the most common illness in the U.S., affecting over 18 percent of the population or 40 million people, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety disorders are treatable, however, most of those diagnosed don’t receive adequate treatment. For some people, the difficulty begins in determining when to seek help and how to differentiate between a diagnosable condition and the normal discomfort of ever-changing emotions.

Dr. Alessandro De Nadai is an assistant professor of psychology at Texas State University who specializes in clinical psychology, developmental psychology, and quantitative psychology. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and led research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. De Nadai’s published research has explored pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and medication adherence. His advice on how to reduce anxiety during election season was recently shared by MSN, Yahoo and PopSugar

Dr. De Nadai shared tips on how to tell the difference between nervousness and anxiety.

What separates someone with an anxiety disorder from others is avoidance. Many people are nervous about things like public speaking, being around spiders, and being in a crowded elevator. However, people with an anxiety disorder engage in active avoidance of important things, through behavior like:

  • Avoidance of significant job promotions because it would involve flying or being in an elevator
  • Refusal of school opportunities that are very promising because of fear of engagement with others
  • Avoidance of family gatherings because of fear of social engagement

In contrast, nervousness is definitely uncomfortable, but still manageable despite this discomfort. To parallel the prior examples, those who experience more common nervousness will:

  • Accept significant job promotions and feel tense at first about flying or being on the elevator, but this nervousness often goes away with repeated participation in these activities
  • Accept good school opportunities, but may feel tense at times when at school-related gatherings
  • Engage in family events, where one will feel nervous at first but then the nervousness goes away throughout the duration of the gathering

It is OK to feel nervous at times – this is a natural protective mechanism to keep one from harmful situations. Without it, we might do things like accidentally handle dangerous spiders!

Not all treatments for anxiety are the same. The best treatments involve an element of practicing anxiety-provoking situations together with a therapist – with practice over time the situation will make someone less and less anxious. This is often called “exposure therapy” that is delivered as a part of “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT). It is very important to ask a therapist if they do exposure therapy because many therapists will advertise that they engage in CBT but do not do exposure. For finding a therapist who does exposure therapy, referrals can be found at the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (



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