NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, October 30, 2022

What's the Difference Between Functional and Dysfunctional Anxiety?

In her TV documentary, "Atlas of the Heart," Dr. Brene Brown, who is a social worker, professor and a researcher of emotions, describes the difference between functional anxiety and dysfunctional anxiety (see my articles: What's the Difference Between Fear and Anxiety? and  Getting Help in Therapy For Anxiety).

Functional vs Dysfunctional Anxiety

What Are Common Symptoms of Anxiety?
Before I get into the difference between functional and dysfunctional anxiety, let's first go over some of the common symptoms of anxiety.

Everyone experiences anxiety in their own way, but here are some common symptoms:
  • Feeling tension in the body
  • Experiencing muscle aches, including headaches, stomachaches and other types of pain
  • Feeling shaky
  • Experiencing difficulty with breathing or loss of breath
  • Feeling restless, wound-up or on edge
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling easily fatigued
  • Having sleep problems including problems falling or staying asleep

Functional Anxiety
According to Dr. Brown, functional anxiety tells you something you need to know.  It's similar to an alarm clock that signals you to pay attention.  

For instance, if you are due to give a presentation, you might feel anxiety which is the signal to prepare for your presentation.  

Functional Anxiety Can Help You to Prepare For a Task

Another example is the anxiety you might feel as tax time is getting near and you know you have to collect your tax information so you can see your accountant.  

With functional anxiety, once you do what you need to do, the anxiety goes away.

Usually, you don't need to attend psychotherapy for functional anxiety as long as you use it to accomplish what needs to get done and then the anxiety dissipates (see my article: Self Help Tips For Anxiety).

Dysfunctional Anxiety
Unlike functional anxiety, dysfunctional anxiety is anxiety you experience that you can't use.  

Dysfunctional Anxiety

Dysfunctional anxiety can keep you uncomfortable for a long time.  You might feel it for weeks, months or even years.  

This type of anxiety keeps churning inside you. 

This is the type of anxiety where you can benefit from seeking help in therapy because this anxiety doesn't go away.

Dysfunctional anxiety is often related to unresolved trauma, as I will explain below.

How Does Experiential Psychotherapy Help to Overcome Dysfunctional Anxiety?
Psychotherapy can help you to understand why you're feeling anxious. 

People often feel dysfunctional anxiety because of past traumatic events that were overwhelming. 

Experiential Therapy Can Help to Overcome Dysfunctional Anxiety

For instance, if you experienced psychological trauma when you were a child and you weren't treated for it in therapy, this unresolved trauma can get triggered again when you're an adult (see my articles: How Past Unresolved Trauma Lives on in the Present and Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

Experiential therapy, like EMDRSomatic Experiencing and AEDP are mind-body oriented therapies (see my article: Experiential Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Provides a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

These types of therapy often work better than regular talk therapy to overcome dysfunctional anxiety (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective. Than Regular Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

With experiential therapy, after you have learned  coping strategies for dysfunctional anxiety, if your anxiety is related to unresolved trauma, you can work through past trauma so that it's no longer an issue for you.

The Benefits of Experiential Therapy
The benefits of experiential therapy to deal with anxiety is that it helps you to:
  • identify triggers related to the past that you're feeling now
  • develop coping strategies to deal with dysfunctional anxiety
  • work through unresolved trauma so it no longer gets triggered

Anxiety isn't always a bad thing.  

Functional anxiety is positive because it acts as a signal for you to take care of something. With functional anxiety, once you have taken care of it, your anxiety is gone.

Unlike functional anxiety, dysfunctional anxiety doesn't help you. You can't use it to spur you to take care of something that needs to be done.

Dysfunctional anxiety doesn't go away on its own.

Since it doesn't go away, you need to seek help from a licensed mental health professional who helps clients to overcome dysfunctional anxiety.

Experiential therapy tends to be more effective than regular talk therapy to overcome dysfunctional anxiety and trauma.

If your anxiety is related to unresolved psychological trauma, your best option is to work with an experiential psychotherapist who is a trauma specialist (see my article: What is Trauma Therapy?).

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapy.

I am a trauma specialist and I have helped many clients to work through unresolved trauma so it no longer affects their life.

To find out more about me, visit my website where I have articles about how I work with anxiety and trauma: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist).

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.