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Worry and Anxiety: Ways to Tell Them Apart

20 December 2022

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You know the drill. There’s something on your mind and you can’t quite shake it. Maybe it’s the middle of the night and you’re thinking about your grocery list or mentally planning a work project. Maybe it feels like you’re watching a video clip on a loop that you can’t turn off, imagining something going horribly wrong. Are you worried? Anxious? Both?

The difference between worry and anxiety can be challenging to parse, but once you can tell them apart, they’re easier to deal with. 

Worry is thinking about something specific. When we worry, we tend to find ourselves thinking about specific future events, sorting through possibilities. You might be figuring out how to finesse a scheduling issue, plan a dinner or break up with a romantic partner. Maybe you’ve got a big work project and someone on your team isn’t doing their share. In any of these situations, there is an impending event that you are trying to solve ahead of time. 

Most of us have any number of challenges to solve, AKA problems to worry about. We worry about everyday stuff – what to do about a pesky colleague, how to navigate a tough conversation, saving money, health issues and the like – and also bigger stuff, like politics, global events (hello, pandemic) or climate change. Temporary uncertainty can trigger more than your usual amount of worry. 

Worry makes sense. When we worry, it’s logical. “I am concerned I won’t meet my savings goal,” is a statement of worry. “My child is failing at school” is a statement of worry. These are specific challenges which your brain is working to solve.  Anxiety often involves catastrophic thinking. A small concern snowballs into irreparable chaos in a matter of seconds when we are anxious. 

Anxiety is diffuse. What we mean by diffuse is that rather than your brain striving to sort out a particular future event, which is what we do when we worry, anxiety is likely more vague. You can’t always articulate anxiety, but you feel it. 

Anxiety is physical. When we worry, it’s mental. We may be mentally turning a problem over in our minds, but we are thinking. Anxiety is often a collection of physical feelings: dry mouth, racing mind, pounding heart, sweaty palms, upset stomach and clenched muscles. 

Worry is limited. If you are worried about something that happened at work, meeting up with friends or bingeing your favorite show will be a mental break from worry. You’ll be able to set it aside for a few hours. You may think about your worries again when your show is over but worrying won’t have disrupted your escape to Bridgerton. 

We talk about what worries us. We more easily talk about worry in part because it tends to be specific – job challenges, money, health – and in part because talking about worries is more acceptable socially. Anxiety is harder to talk about because it’s often irrational and may trigger feelings of shame.  

Worry is temporary. The work presentation happens, your son passes chemistry or your mom’s bout with the flu ends. The situation causing your worry finishes, and so does your worry.

Anxiety is a bit different. Here are four main types of anxiety disorders:

Social anxiety disorder is sometimes called social phobia. Lots of people feel nervous during some social situations, like speaking in public or having lunch with the boss, but for people with social anxiety disorder even regular daily interactions trigger significant fear, anxiety, self-consciousness and worry. 

At its core is a fear of being negatively judged by other people. Social anxiety disorder is a chronic mental health ailment which can disrupt school, work or other routines. 
Some signs or symptoms of social anxiety disorder are an intense fear of talking or interacting with strangers; of embarrassing physical reactions like blushing, trembling or sweating; worry about humiliating yourself; avoidance of talking or interacting with people due to fear of embarrassment and fear of situations where you may be negatively judged. Ruminating on perceived flaws in social interactions after they take place is also common, as is expecting the worst possible outcome from social situations.  

Panic disorder involves unexpected or frequent panic attacks. A panic attack is an intense, sudden burst of terror sometimes described as feeling totally out of control. Most panic attacks last somewhere between five and 20 minutes; some can last as long as an hour.

Having one or occasional panic attacks does not mean a person will develop panic disorder. Those who do, however, often find themselves working to avoid having another attack. For example, they may avoid places where an attack has previously occurred. If a panic attack happened during a particular activity or in a certain situation, the person may cross that activity/situation off of his or her list.  

People experiencing a panic attack may also experience feelings of impending doom; a choking sensation; a sudden need for a bathroom; a feeling that you’ve detached from your body; heart pounding or racing; chest pain; sweating; intense fear; general discomfort; trembling and tingling sensations.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is not the same as the occasional bout of worry related to a specific life event. It’s a stronger, constant feeling of dread or inexplicable nervousness. This type of anxiety can make social or work interactions difficult.  

GAD symptoms can be physical or mental and can include muscle aches, stomach aches and pains; sweating; gastric upset and irritable bowel syndrome; irritability; having trouble falling or staying asleep; feeling on-edge, tense, restless; tiring easily; being easily startled; perceiving non-threatening situations or events as threatening; inability to relax; not coping well with uncertainty; or doom-fantasizing – that is, taking a small negative possibility and creating a huge, worst-case scenario in your mind that plays over and over like a movie. People with GAD may harbor recurring fear that something terrible will happen to people they love.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after experiencing or exposure to a shocking, frightening event, series of events or situation(s) wherein tremendous physical harm either happened or could have happened. Think things like natural disasters, war or combat, physical or sexual assault, domestic violence or bullying.

During and after such trauma, fear is a natural reaction. As time passes, those who do not develop PTSD will recover from the fear/shock and return to their baseline emotional state. Those who continue to experience emotional or physical symptoms, for example feeling fear or stress when they are not in danger, may be diagnosed with PTSD. This tends to develop within three months of the traumatic event(s). PTSD is a disruptive condition, often interfering with a person’s relationships or work. Symptoms may last a month or more and for some, PTSD becomes chronic.  

People with PTSD may be easily startled, have angry outbursts and difficulty sleeping. They may be unable to remember specifics about the traumatic event or feel guilty about it. Interest in enjoyable activities may wane and flashbacks to the original event may occur, along with nightmares.

Some things to try on your own

Challenge negative thoughts. To calm your mind, ease anxiety and worry less consider challenging your negative thoughts. When your mind tells you your can’t solve/do something, pause for a moment and then challenge that thought with two questions: ‘Is this true?’ And ‘Is this helpful?’

Turn off the news. Much of what we see on the news is beyond our control, plus the news is on a constant loop. It’s easy to get sucked into the stress of world events but doing so isn’t healthy. Read the headlines to stay abreast of events, but then stop and move on.

Decompress. Find ways to regroup. Read a great book, take the dog for a walk, rake some leaves or turn on your favorite song and have a sing along. 

When to seek help

Talking with a healthcare professional about worry or anxiety can be a good idea. Being worried or anxious is not a healthy long-term state. If your worry and/or anxiety is disrupting your daily life.

INTEGRIS Health offers free mental health screenings as well as comprehensive services. Whatever you’re struggling with, whether it’s worry, anxiety or something entirely different, we want to help you find the path back.


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