DR. BERNEY: Difference between worry and anxiety – The Ledger

Dr. Berney Wilkinson

Anxiety is one of our most common mental health challenges. Anxiety emerges when we take tests in school, at visits to the dentist, in social situations, when asked to do public speaking, flying, being alone, being in crowds, being in large places, being in confined spaces. You name it, it is likely that someone experiences anxiety related to it.

For most of us, anxiety is an intense emotion that occurs because we fear that something really bad may happen. For example, people with social anxiety have a fear that others are looking at them, judging them, and criticizing everything they do. Those who fear confined spaces (claustrophobia) are anxious that they will not be able to get out. Those with separation anxiety fear that their loved one will never return.

Anxiety is very different from worrying. While worrying is usually more easily managed, it is also associated with a more reasonable view of what might happen and we have time to prepare. For example, let’s say that you have a test scheduled for this Friday. If you are worried about the test, you will be sure to study and prepare for the exam throughout the week. On the other hand, persons with test anxiety, perseverate on all of the negatives associated with failing the test, leading them to thoughts about dropping out of school, becoming a “failure,” and struggling for the rest of their life. Unlike those who worry and prepare, people with true test anxiety are unable to focus their attention and to prepare for the test.

Anxiety differs from worry because anxiety impairs our functioning in some way. While worrying informs us that we can and should do something to prepare, anxiety informs us that we have no control and there is nothing we can do about it.

So, what can we do to better manage our anxiety? The best thing you can do is confront the anxiety. I know it sounds scary, but the most important thing you can do when you feel anxious about something is to face it. If you are anxious about being trapped in that elevator forever, the best treatment for you is to get into the elevator.

When you are anxious, your brain is unnecessarily sensitive to a perceived danger. In other words, your brain thinks you are in danger, even when you’re not. As a result, you must demonstrate to your brain that it is wrong about the danger, and the only way to do that is to get on the elevator.

Performing some relaxation or calming techniques may help to reduce your distress in the moment. Taking a few deep breaths, visualizing a calm and safe place, or having a trusted friend standing next to you can help to ease the distress. That said, there is no quick fix for managing anxiety. It takes time and persistence. Over time, though, your anxiety will diminish and become nothing more than a random thought in the back of your mind. It isn’t easy, but neither is experiencing the distress of the anxiety. So, the next time you feel that twinge of anxiety, recognize it, calm yourself, and confront it.

Dr. Berney, a licensed psychologist with Psychological Associates of Central Florida in Lakeland, is a national speaker and the co-author of “Handbook for Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child.” Listen to Dr. Berney’s podcast, “The Mental Breakdown,” on iTunes and YouTube. You can submit questions or topics to Dr. Berney by email at drberney@pacflorida.com.