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Let’s begin by pinpointing exactly what we mean by anxiety. This word is part of a constellation of related terms that need to be carefully distinguished from one another:

Fear: An intense emotional reaction to a legitimate, present danger—something that’s happening right now. It’s a healthy reaction because it activates our survival instincts and motivates us to take necessary action.

Anxiety: An emotional reaction to a perceived, anticipated, or future danger. It’s unhealthy in that it’s incapable of producing any kind of constructive action. That’s because the danger is not here (now or yet) so you can’t respond. Clinical anxiety can produce symptoms such as trembling and shaking, restlessness, sleeplessness, fatigue, anger, and depression.

Worry: A nonclinical term for anxiety.

Concern: This word has two meanings. 1. A “Christian” euphemism for worry. 2. Positive and engaged involvement with another person. Concern is more of an action than an emotion.

Panic: A negative behavioral response to either fear or anxiety.

In essence, anxiety or worry is a thinking process. It’s a bad brain habit that almost always expresses itself in the form of a “what if?” question. The problem with “what if?” thinking is that it shifts your focus. It pulls you out of the present moment (the real moment) and into the future (not a real moment). The future doesn’t exist (yet), and you have zero control over things that don’t exist. As a result, “what if ” thinking causes you to feel out of control. This is the physiological sensation we most commonly associate with anxiety.

As you probably know, anxiety can be mild or severe—or somewhere in between. At the mild end, it can be compared to a couple of Yorkie pups nipping at your heels. At the other extreme, it feels more like a Tyrannosaurus Rex screaming in your face. The range of intensity stretches from harmless at one end of the emotional scale to paralyzing at the other:

Most of us worry about things from time to time. That’s not unusual. It’s when the anxious thinking cripples us so that we can no longer handle daily routines that some kind of serious intervention is needed.

Examples of “What if?” Thinking

“What if my husband loses his job?”

“What if Amy doesn’t like me?”

“What if our son ends up in jail?”

“What if I don’t get the scholarship?”

“What if Gary’s suicide was my fault?”

“What if we come down too hard on our teenager and she runs away?”

“What if I don’t score high enough on the SAT?”

“What if Johnny fails this Friday’s algebra test and never goes to college?”

Lesson Complete!