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Acute vs Chronic Anxiety: Difference Between Chronic & Acute Anxiety?

By A Member of the Lina Team (Licensed Psychologist, PsyD)

Lina provides online psychiatry and medication for depression and anxiety. To learn more, visit hellolina.com.

Is there acute anxiety? Is there chronic anxiety?

Everyone experiences acute anxiety at one time or another. In fact, anxiety is a natural and healthy emotion in certain situations. Chronic anxiety, however, affects just a segment of the population. For those individuals, anxiety is pervasive, intense, and disruptive.

What is the difference between acute and chronic anxiety?

‘Anxiety’ is an emotion, our body’s automatic response to threat; it’s characterized by worried thoughts, physical sensations like muscle tension and increased heart rate, and a sense of uneasiness. Anxiety is an adaptive emotion that keeps us alert and prepared. And like any other emotion, anxiety naturally ebbs and flows in response to events in our lives. For example, in advance of a stressful situation like a job interview, it is normal to experience acute anxiety for several minutes or hours which then naturally fades after the interview has ended.

For some people, anxiety is “chronic” and pervasive. This is what mental health professionals refer to as an anxiety disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manral currently recognizes several kinds of anxiety disorder such as: social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder among others. In such cases, an individual feels anxiety more often and more intensely than average, in a way that interferes with their life.

How do I know if my anxiety is chronic or acute? Is anxiety acute or chronic?

Paying attention to when and for how long your anxiety lasts will help determine if you have acute versus chronic anxiety. As a good rule of thumb, if you notice that you feel anxious in response to particular settings or situations, and that the anxiety naturally abates within a few hours (or less) you are experiencing acute anxiety. However, if you find that you feel anxious more days than not, that your anxiety is out of proportion to the situation, or that anxiety is regularly interfering with your sleep, work, health, or relationships, you could be experiencing chronic anxiety.

Can you have acute or chronic anxiety and not know it?

While less common, it is possible for someone to be experiencing anxiety (acute or chronic anxiety) without awareness. Some people have difficulty recognizing and labeling their emotions. Other people experience anxiety mainly in physical complaints and might not be aware of their emotional causes (for example, someone suffering from unexplained gastrointestinal pain that is in fact due to anxiety). Finally, some people have been anxious so persistently that it becomes a background to their life so they may not realize that they have either chronic or acute anxiety.

Can acute anxiety go away? Can chronic anxiety go away?

Acute anxiety naturally alleviates on its own, typically within a matter of minutes or hours. Engaging in coping strategies like distraction, visual imagery, talking to a friend, or exercising can help to alleviate anxiety quicker. Chronic anxiety can also alleviate with time: this typically occurs if there is a resolution of a long-term situation that is causing the chronic anxiety (e.g. for someone with anxiety secondary to a cancer diagnosis, when their cancer is successfully treated they might find that their chronic anxiety naturally subsides). Alternately, mental health treatment via psychiatric medication or talk therapy can effectively reduce chronic anxiety.

What are the best treatment options for acute vs chronic anxiety?

There is a difference in how to best treat acute versus chronic anxiety. Acute anxiety typically alleviates on its own, and can be helped with strategies like breathing exercises, talking to a supportive friend, using physical cues like muscle clench-and-release or exercise.

Chronic anxiety can be effectively treated best via psychopharmacological options such as SSRIs or anxiolytic medications and via psychotherapeutic options such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and psychodynamic therapy.

Remember, you are not alone. If you are struggling with anxiety, reaching out for support is a great first step!