Anxiety vs. Nervousness: Know the difference so you can handle it better
Anxiety vs. Nervousness: Know the difference so you can handle it better

Anxiety vs. Nervousness: Know the difference so you can handle it better

Kristie Overstreet Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, LPC, CST

You’ve waited for this opportunity for a long time. You have studied for months, completed hundreds of quiz questions, and today is your exam. You are on your way to the testing site. Your stomach begins to churn, your hands start to shake, and you feel jittery inside. This is a familiar feeling that you experience when you have exams or when you have to present in front of people. Are you feeling anxious or nervousness? Knowing the difference can help you work through the feeling quicker and more efficiently.

Identify which you are experiencing

People experience both nervousness and anxiety differently. Typically, nervousness is short-term and only hangs around for a given period. That is different than anxiety which lingers for hours even days after an experience. Nervousness usually happens as you anticipate an event or situation.

For example, five minutes before the monthly clinical staffing, your supervisor asks you to start by sharing a case presentation. You only have a few minutes to think about the case, what you will say, and how to organize your presentation. You may feel nervous because of a lack of time to prepare, worry because all of the directors are at the meeting, and concerned everyone will see your hands shaking as you speak. A few minutes after you finish you feel relieved and no longer nervous.

If this were anxiety, you may not have been able to give the presentation on such a short notice. If you were able to present, afterward you would have continued to worry about how you did and continued to feel anxious later on in the day. You may find that your self-doubt and negative self-talk follows you even after the meeting. This is a difference in anxiety versus nervousness.

Strategies to overcome the feeling

You now have a better understanding of which feeling you are experiencing you are ready to take action to overcome it. Start by acknowledging that you are in complete control of your thoughts and beliefs. This recognition is a great way to remind yourself that no one and nothing can control your thoughts but you. There is power in this because when you are feeling out of control, you now realize that you are in control.
If you are experiencing nervousness, remind yourself that you will feel better immediately after the situation or event. If you are nervous about taking your licensing exam, visualize how you will feel when you finish it. Think about what feelings you will experience as you walk out of the testing center. Go ahead and plan what you will do afterward to celebrate your accomplishment. You are solidifying the fact that your nervous feeling will be short-term and you are in more control of it than you realize.

If you experience anxiety that surfaces consistently throughout the day or week, then you need to practice additional strategies. Be sure to acknowledge that you are in control of your thoughts, but it may take extra energy to believe it to be true. If you have anxiety, you will want to begin practicing mindfulness and stress relief techniques far in advance of your exam date. As you realize that you are in control of your thoughts, take the next step to examine the evidence behind them.

For example, if you are telling yourself that “I never do good on a test.” Challenge the word never. It is inaccurate to say that you never do good on test because if you have gotten this far in school, you aren’t horrible at test taking. You have zero evidence that you never do good. You will want to rephrase this to say “I sometimes don’t do as good as I would like on a test.” It takes consistency and practice to decrease your anxiety, but it is possible.

Whether you are struggling with nervousness or anxiety, you do have the ability to overcome it. Be sure that you use all of the tools available to you including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, mindfulness, exercise, writing, and breathing to assist you. You have been able to work through both nervousness and anxiety in the past, which is the evidence you need to remind yourself that you can overcome it again when it happens. The next time either of these feelings surfaces, remind yourself that you do have the power as well as the ability to come out on the other side feeling better.

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