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Nervousness, Anxiety and Panic

To Avoid, Fight or Flee


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

With nervousness, 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?


"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)


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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 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 is part of anxiety and to get nervous is to be human. We all get nervous for a reason and it can almost always be traced back to some situation in life that has made us (or is still making us) feel insecure and vulnerable.




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