Do you know the difference between anxiety and worry?
Let me talk you through it because they are often confused. See, the thing is that in the English language use the words anxiety and worry are used interchangeably, and this can cause a lot of confusion.
I'm going to look at the emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and physical sensations of both anxiety and worry, so that we can see the differences. But first, let's quickly look at the similarities.
Both anxiety and worry are future focused. Both anxiety and worry create unpleasant physical sensations. But what are the differences?
Anxiety is the name given to a negative emotion.
Worry can cause negative emotions, including the one known as anxiety, but also anger. Here are some tips on how to deal with emotions SAFELY.
Thoughts when we are anxious are focused on an anticipation of a specific threat. For example, we may fear going to a specific place or carry out a specific activity. We may think ‘I’m frightened of going to see the dentist.’ That is anxiety of a specific threat. Another example is anxiety about a specific animal. Say we have a fear of dogs. Anxiety (the emotion) is caused when thinking about or when in physical contact with that perceived physical threat.
Worry on the other hand, is more nebulous. More fluid and dynamic. Worry is a thought about a perceived non-specific threat, in the future, that causes negative emotion.
Now, many times it can seem like a specific threat to start with. We may think we're worried about an event. We may think ‘What if there's a lot of people there?’. But the worry doesn't stop there. It is followed by other thoughts about that event, that can have no answer. That's not a specific worry about that specific event. Is quite fluid. If we were challenged on that thought, we would then be able to say, ‘If there are lots of people there, I might not feel very good’. If we were then challenged on that thought, we may then describe ‘not good’ as anxious. So, we could conclude that this person was not in fact anxious about the event being busy, they were anxious about feeling anxious. This can occur anywhere, any time.
Or the other worry that can be commonly seen is when thoughts evolve into catastrophic outcomes. We can go from one thought, through a whole line of thoughts, to a worst-case scenario.
Sometimes this can happen extremely quickly. Now we've all done this at times. But actually, we very rarely get to the absolute worst-case. We don't allow ourselves to do this. This would be too threatening. Instead, we go off on tangents.
Worry thoughts are a lot more slippery than anxiety thoughts to catch.
Now, let's turn to what the behaviours of anxiety are compared to worry.
Imagine being a sprinter waiting to start a race.
In anxiety our behaviour is focus solely on the purpose of survival. On escape from the specific threat, to get to the finish line. We very quickly assess whether to flee from it, to fight it, or whether our best chance of survival comes from not moving at all (freeze). Going into the fight flight freeze response is the automatic response of all humans when faced with a perceived life-threatening situation.
Whereas in worry because there's no specific threat, our behaviour is more uncertain. We walk to the start line and get on our marks. We're still looking around wondering what is going to cause us trouble or what is going to be the threat? Where is it coming from? We're gonna be hypervigilant. We may seek reassurance from others because we are unsure. We might be indecisive, not sure where we're running to. We might impulsively decide to run off in one direction, just because it feels like we need to. On the other hand, we might put things off, procrastinate, because we need to get it right, and you don’t like asking for help or directions. We are stuck there.
So, you can start to see quite clearly how the physical symptoms then manifest. In anxiety, our breath naturally quickens, with the onset of the fight/flight response. Then the heart races, the blood flows to the big muscles in arms and legs. It doesn't go to the smaller regions of the nose, mouth, ears, fingers, and toes. They get cold, or pins and needles because they don't need so much oxygen whilst you are running or fighting. Your digestive system shuts down when we're running and fighting. We don't need to eat. And we don't need any extra resources going to those areas. The only thing that's happening is the blood is pumping around the torso more to keep the vital organs going, so it's a lot warmer in the central area of our body. We don't have so much need to concentrate or think or plan. We are acting on instinct in a fight/flight situation, so we act on instinct. We just need to have focus on this one thing that is causing the potential threat to survival.
Whereas in worry, physically it is very different.
As worriers, we have already been over-breathing. Any extra perceived threat and hyperventilation is very likely. But even without that, we are still stuck in the Get Set position on the start line.
On a continuous level, our muscles are tense. Especially those around the shoulders, neck, and jaw. We can get a headache. We may feel this extra tension in a restlessness. We might start to pace around, not sure what we're doing. We are not sure exactly where we’re running. What we’re running to or what we’re running from.
Over time we start to have poor sleep because we need to be on alert. We have fatigue through waiting and watching for so long. We are irritable. Through just the sheer exhaustion of being on edge for so long.
Physically we’re battered through years and years of being in GET Set, waiting to Go. This sucks the joy out of life. It takes the ability to do anything spontaneously away. It prevents us from seeing the beauty in everyday because we're constantly looking to the future and the potential threats. It reduces our quality of life.
So, in conclusion, although the words anxiety and worry are often used interchangeably in the English language, they are in fact different. Anxiety is an emotion commonly experienced when one fears for their survival and is distinguished by a distinct set of physical and behavioural responses. Whereas worry is a behavioural process that creates a distinct set of behaviours and physical sensations.
There are ways to reduce our experience of worry and anxiety. If you want to understand further how anxiety works, click here.
Meditation has huge benefits in managing worries and anxiety, here is a guide on how you can start a regular meditation practice.
If you would like to learn more about worry and anxiety and empower yourself to quieten your mind, to take back control and to refresh your relationships, then come join me in the Over-Thinkers Undermined Facebook group, where we talk about how to shelve overthinking and enjoy life. I look forward to welcoming you there.
With Hope and Healing