In our daily conversations, we use anxiety and worry in the same way. “I’m so anxious about my date tonight” means the same as, “I’m so worried about my date”.

But in psychology, worry and anxiety are related, but not the same. If you suffer from constant worry lately, and are not sure it’s becoming something worse, its worth learning the difference.

What is worry?

Life can certainly bring challenges. Meaning we all worry at times.

Worry means we have doubts about a situation or person, and it makes us feel troubled. Perhaps we have a big decision to make, and aren’t sure it will go well. Or the potential decision isn’t what we will face, but someone we love will face, and we are concerned for them. Our thoughts run over possible alternatives.

For some people , worry can affect sleep and leave you exhausted, or can mean you stress eat or lose your appetite. It can also make you feel tense.

Worry tends to last for limited period of time. When the thing we are worried about is resolved, we feel a big relief. And often there are action steps we can take to lead to that resolution.

Worry is a perfectly acceptable social phenomenon. We can talk about it with friends and get empathy. In fact some people share their worries as a way to connect with others, who might have similar concerns.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is your mind’s version of rubbing a stone again and again in your hand. It is repetitive negative thoughts about your future, that are increasingly illogical and fear-based.

It might be that you are anxious about one thing, but more often, you'll find yourself suddenly anxious about all sorts of things.

You can also feel anxious and not even know why. Everything and anything just seems to set you off.

Anxiety always has a strong physical component. It causes cycles of buzzy energy followed by crashes, sleeplessness, an upset stomach, sweaty palms, muscle tension, dizziness and heart palpitations. Anxiety attacks are often described by sufferers as feeling akin to a heart attack.

Soon enough we can feel ashamed about how we feel. We can be afraid to tell others in case they deem us ‘crazy’, or tell us to stop worrying about things out of our control.

Once it starts, anxiety can feel like a wildfire we can’t put out. We can sort out the thing we thought we were anxious about, only for our mind to then jump onto something else and get anxious about that.

Anxiety disorder

If anxiety goes on for long enough, you might be diagnosed with 'generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)'.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) defines generalised anxiety disorder as, “excessive worry about a number of different events associated with heightened tension.… symptoms should be present for at least 6 months and should cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning".

Anxiety vs worry

As you can see, worried thoughts are part of anxiety. And they both involve overthinking about the future in ways that can leave us not ourselves.

So then what’s the difference?

  • worry is usually about a certain situation or person vs anxiety can be a feeling that has no exact cause
  • worry looks at realistic alternatives vs anxiety creates illogical possibilities.
  • worry ends when a problem is resolved vs anxiety finds something else to overthink about
  • worry is largely mental vs anxiety is very physical as well as mental
  • worry leaves us stressed vs anxiety leaves us afraid and feeling helpless
  • worry is something we feel safe to share vs anxiety can cause shame or be something we try to hide
  • worry is exhausting but we can carry on vs anxiety can seriously affect our coping and functioning
  • worry is something we feel we can figure out vs anxiety can feel totally out of control
  • worry passes vs anxiety gets worse
  • worry is not a mental health issue vs anxiety can evolve into a diagnosis of GAD.

The worry and anxiety ‘grey zone’

Again, worry and anxiety are connected. So there can be a bit of a grey zone between them.

Severe worry can cross over to mild anxiety. You might catch your thoughts are becoming illogic, feel more physical symptoms, or notice your worry is starting to directly affect your life.

How can I deal with my worry?

If you feel your worry is crossing over to anxiety, you can use the same tactics recommended by the NHS for generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Self-help is actually the first path of recommended treatment. This includes educating yourself about anxiety (just reading this article might already be helping), or buying books about how to handle anxiety.

The NHS also recommends self-care, such as exercising, cutting back on drinking and smoking, and learning to relax, like trying yoga.

If this doesn't help, the next step can be to try a psychological treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Self-help not cutting it? Need real help for your worry and anxiety? Find a counsellor who is an expert now, and be talking to someone who really understands as soon as tomorrow.

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