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Nervousness, Anxiety and Panic

Nervousness is part of being human and to get nervous in certain situations is perfectly normal, everyone does. Most people even experience hign nervousness frequently. Things like exams and tests, interviews, public speaking, first dates and competitive sports can make anyone pretty nervous.

We feel apprehensive and vaguely insecure. We're a bit 'on edge', jumpy and shaky. These sensations can be mild or extreme.

But when I feel like this... am I nervous or am I anxious?

Do I get very nervous before a first date or very anxious?

Similarly, if I'm breathing heavily, my heart is racing and I have uncontrollable thoughts of impending doom – is it an anxiety attack or a panic attack?

Nervousess, anxiety and Panic lie on a continuum.


They are all revolve around anxiety, a survival instinct which has evolved over millions of years and helps to protect us from getting hurt.

Anxiety is a series of reflexes, reactions and responses and it protects us in two main ways.

1. Our thoughts: We think about potentially dangerous situations before we get to them - the greatest form of protection is not to get into such situations in the first place. This is responsible for the apprehension and fearful thoughts we experience and can be seen in many anxiety-related problems, where we will often avoid situations that make us feel afraid.

2. Our Body: Anxiety prepares us for action – the fight-or-flight response. We are charged with energy ready to fight or flee. From mild nervousness through to extreme panic, the fight or flight response is responsible for all the physical symptoms that we experience.

Some of the symptoms may be enhanced by our thoughts, for example: a dry throat with subsequent perceived difficulty swallowing may be built up into feeling we are choking, but in essence everything that is happening to our body is a result of it being physically prepared for action.

Much of this preparation involves the re-directing of resources to the major muscle groups (legs/arms/chest) to provide them with an energy boost for action – ultimately to fight or flee:-

bluearr Our breathing becomes more rapid to get more oxygen (fuel) for these muscles into the blood.
bluearr Our heartbeat speeds up to get this freshly oxygenated blood to the muscles more quickly.
bluearr Blood is diverted from the brain (making us light-headed and dizzy) and from the stomach (causing 'butterflies').
bluearr Energy cannot be wasted processing any half-digested food in our system so we need to get rid of it quickly – either through the mouth (feelings of nausea) or the other end (wanting to go to the toilet).
bluearr Other 'energy-wasting' systems (unnecessary in time of danger) are shut down eg. saliva production, giving us a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
bluearr We sweat more to cool down all this energy production.
bluearr The energy boost to the muscles makes them feel 'jumpy' / 'jittery' / 'jelly-like'/ 'on edge' ready for action.


Nervousness, anxiety and panic are fundamentally the same, differing only in intensity and speed of onset. We can experience mild, vague feelings of unease and apprehension, being slightly nervous about some distant danger, or be so panic-stricken about an imminent threat that all we can do is flee.

Perhaps this is best illustrated using the following example:-

Take the man who is scared of public speaking that has to make a speech at his friend's wedding in a few weeks time...

blue arrow  Weeks away, just thinking about the wedding will make him nervous. Probably only slightly for everything is still some time away.

blue arrow  Days away from the event he'll be starting to get extremely anxious just thinking about it. The nervousness grows into anxiety, which gets stronger and stronger as the day of the speech draws near.

blue arrow  The morning of the wedding he is now panic-stricken, terrified about making the speech – so much so that he gets drunk enough to face it or makes excuses to get out of it and avoids doing it altogether.

Nervousness and Anxiety Disorders

Nervousness (essentially a part of anxiety) is part of our make up. It's natural to get nervous and sometimes very nervous at appropriate times. This is natural, this is normal.

However, for some of us, things change – we start to get nervous more often or too nervous/anxious in certain situations.

Many people stay like this and live with the feelings of apprehension and being 'on-edge' for a long time.

For others these feelings increase and soon 'symptoms' associated with anxiety begin to appear. We may notice that more shaky, sweating more, experiencing heart palpitations, tightness across the chest or blushing – any symptom related to anxiety may develop. And worrying about these symptoms only makes them worse for it increases the anxiety.

Over time, if not resolved, increased anxiety can lead to a whole host of problems such as uncontrollable worrying, panic attacks that come out of the blue, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours, irrational fears and phobias (particularly social phobia) even severe depression.

Numerous research studies show that the first thing many people with long-term anxiety disorders remember about the start of their problem is "being too nervous" for a long time.


We all get nervous and we all get very nervous with good reason. Nobody ever gets too nervous without a cause. And the cause can almost always be traced back to some situation in our life that has made (or is still making) us feel insecure and vulnerable.


(Adapted from the free eBook: Anxiety Symptoms: What's Happening and Why )

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"excitable, sensitive, highly strung". May involve apprehension and worry"

"A state of uneasiness or tension caused by apprehension of possible misfortune, danger etc." and to be anxious is to be "worried and tense"

"A sudden overwhelming feeling of fear or anxiety"

(The Collins English Dictionary)


Fight or Flight
Anxiety Symptoms
Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety Self Help


Anxiety Books


More Resources:
WedMd: Causes
Mdguidelines: Diagnosis


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