The term “anxiety” is often casually used to describe a range of emotions, from everyday worries to genuine fears.
However, what we frequently get wrong about anxiety is not only its distinction from worry and fear but also how it shapes our perceptions of risk and our abilities to cope.
What We Get Wrong About Anxiety
Anxiety is a feeling of visceral dread from a perceived threat that is neither specific nor immediate (e.g., something bad will happen if I go hiking) as opposed to fear in which the threat is specific and immediate (e.g., there’s a bear on the trail).
What we get wrong is:
1. We don’t distinguish it from worry or fear. Worry is far more common and less problematic — knowing the difference is important.
2. Anxiety makes us drastically overestimate the likelihood of very unlikely events happening (e.g., a fear of flying when planes are far safer than cars).
3. Anxiety makes us underestimate our ability to deal with the things that are causing us dread (e.g., anxiety about freezing when giving a presentation — which would be embarrassing and upsetting but survivable).
The Differences Between Anxiety and Worry
Two big differences are:
- Because anxiety is vague and in the future (e.g., fear of flying), we can’t do much to lower the perceived threat. Worry is about something specific going wrong (e.g., long lines at the airport causing us to miss our flight), so we can take steps to address it (leave earlier).
- We typically feel anxiety in our bodies — tightness in our chest or churning in our stomach. Worry does not usually activate us viscerally — it’s more in our heads and does not usually activate our fight or flight response.
A common misunderstanding about managing anxiety is that we believe that avoiding the thing that makes us anxious will help us feel less anxious.
The opposite is true. The more you avoid the anxiety-provoking thing, the scarier and more intimidating that thing becomes in your mind because each avoidance registers like a close call (i.e., that the bad thing would have happened).
What happens when anxiety goes unchecked we go straight to the worst-case scenario and skip all the steps that would have to happen before we get there.
For example, we’re anxious about starting a new job and think about how awful it would be to get fired during our first week.
There’s always a chain of events that has to happen for the worst-case scenario to occur (e.g., a lot would have to go wrong during that first week) but we ignore that and focus on the dreaded ultimate outcome.
Anxiety, unlike fear, arises from vague and future-oriented threats, leading us to overestimate the likelihood of improbable events while underestimating our capacity to confront challenges.
It’s not an accurate reflection of true threats or our abilities to overcome them.
Guy Winch is a distinguished psychologist and acclaimed author. His work has been featured in The New York Times and Psychology Today.
This article was originally published at Guy Winch’s Newsletter. Reprinted with permission from the author.