As a therapist, I often hear my clients use the words “worry” and “anxiety” interchangeably — I even catch myself doing the same thing from time to time. However, there are subtle and significant differences between the two. Knowing what those differences are can help us more clearly distinguish the normal strain of day-to-day life from those situations when we might need to seek the help of a professional.
Here are three questions to ask that will help you distinguish between worry and anxiety.
Where do I feel it?
One difference between anxiety and worry is where we experience each. Worry often takes up residence in our brains. When I’m lost in a spiral of worry I get snappy and irritable and can frequently be seen staring off into space as my internal monologue spirals out of control. We ruminate over problems that need solutions. We agonize over the ever growing to-do list and we stay awake long after the lights are out overthinking the past and future.
On the flip side, anxiety is more of a physical experience. It might be hard to take a deep breath because your chest feels “heavy,” as if you’re trying to breathe underwater. You may feel unusually hot or cold. Unexplained muscle tension or chronic pain? Could be anxiety. Often I don’t realize how anxious I am until I notice myself forcing a yawn just to get a deep breath, or if I realize I’m feeling unusually achy.
Is there a clear solution?
There’s a long list of things I worry about: deadlines, work stuff, my ever growing to-do list, taxes, having more children, the health and wellbeing of the child I already have, money, etc. Most of these things have clear solutions. There are phone calls I need to make, numbers I need to crunch, conversations I need to have and dust bunnies I need to sweep. Often, when we take action on the things that are making us worry, the worry goes away pretty quickly.
In contrast, anxiety doesn’t always have a clear and easy solution. Here’s an example. When my husband is running later than usual on his way home from work, I frequently jump right to the possibility that he’s been in a horrible, life-altering accident. When he gets home and I’m all kinds of passive aggressive, it’s rooted in the fear of losing him. When I toss dirty baby clothes over our second floor balcony, I sometimes imagine I dropped our daughter over the edge by mistake, and I panic. These are scary thoughts that don’t have easy solutions, and this creates anxiety that needs to be processed, coped with, and worked through.
How severe is the distress?
The severity of distress caused by worry is often significantly lower than that of clinical anxiety. Worry is generally linked to specific events, tasks, or experiences that have a clear end date. For example, when our daughter was going through a sleep regression, I was worried I’d never feel energized again. Logically, I knew this phase would pass and we would all be sleeping soundly through the night soon enough. Knowing that sleep was coming soon made it easier to problem-solve with extra naps and self-care instead of letting it turn into full blown anxiety.
With anxiety, however, the distress caused by lack of sleep becomes all consuming and can affect our ability to function, especially during times of transition or increased stress. Changing jobs, preparing for a wedding, moving or welcoming a new baby are meant to be exciting times met with joyful celebrations. What we often forget is that these changes create a massive disturbance to our “normal” and can be extremely difficult to cope with.
Every one of us experiences some degree of worry in our lifetime. We lay awake before the alarm sounds, afraid we’ve overslept a final exam. Or we spend hours agonizing over the message we sent to an ex in a moment of weakness. Worry is a normal human experience, albeit an inconvenient and uncomfortable one.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is not a normal, healthy state. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a complex issue, anxiety is an alarm sounding in response to a threat that isn’t real. If you’re experiencing anxiety, know that help is within reach. You are not alone and you won’t always feel this way.