Differentiating Between Worry and Anxiety: A Guide to Understanding
Updated: Sep 28
Worry is an occasional companion in life's journey, a rational response to certain situations. However, when worry starts to dominate, evolving into uncontrollable anxiety, it can become a challenging adversary. This blog aims to elucidate the distinction between manageable worry and problematic anxiety.
Worrying, at times, is a perfectly normal human experience. It often arises in response to a legitimate cause or concern. However, when worry spirals out of control, it can manifest as anxiety and stress. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), characterised by excessive worry, is a common manifestation of problematic anxiety.
Prevalence of Anxiety Problems
National health statistics indicate that GAD is the most prevalent anxiety issue, affecting up to 5% of the UK population. It is slightly more common in women than men and often affects those aged 35 to 59. However, this number may be significantly higher when considering individuals who, for various reasons, do not seek clinical help, including younger individuals.
The Relationship Between Worry and Anxiety
Humans have an innate tendency to engage in mental problem-solving when faced with uncertainty. When no immediate solution is apparent, our minds may wander into the realm of negative outcomes, sparking worry. Borkovec et al. (1983) aptly describe worry as a chain of negative-laden thoughts and images that can accumulate uncontrollably.
Defining Worry and Anxiety
Worry is characterised as thinking about future events in a way that leaves you feeling apprehensive. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a cause to feel anxious or troubled about actual or potential problems."
Anxiety is the state of being troubled over actual or potential problems.
The Body's Automatic Response to Fear
The body responds to perceived danger or threat by triggering a stress response, commonly known as the "fight or flight" response.
Notably, this automatic response does not differentiate between real and imagined risks; it acts to protect you regardless.
Consider the example of COVID-19, a genuine cause for concern.
It is normal to worry to some degree in response to such a situation.
However, it becomes problematic when anxiety persists, even amid unrealistic concerns. Unmanaged stress can overwhelm individuals and impede their ability to function effectively.
Worry vs. Anxiety: Key Differences
Nature of the Feeling:
Worry: You may feel irritable and find concentrating challenging, but the feeling is generally containable.
Anxiety: You may experience a sense of dread or fear, accompanied by various physiological responses.
Worry: It is more specific and often associated with a single, identifiable source or root cause.
Anxiety: It can be more generalised, and individuals may find it challenging to pinpoint the source.
What Does Worry Feel Like?
Worry may manifest as irritability, difficulties in concentration, or unease. It is often triggered by specific concerns that can be managed through realistic actions.
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
Anxiety can escalate to a sense of dread, resulting in various physiological responses. It may lead to restlessness, muscle tension, insomnia, sweating, and other symptoms. Anxiety can be overwhelming and often accompanied by irrational fears and an overestimated risk.
Seeking Help for Persistent Anxiety
When anxiety becomes persistent, irrational, and impedes your daily functioning, it's advisable to seek professional help. Various therapeutic approaches can assist individuals in managing and alleviating anxiety.
Availability of Support
The good news is that numerous forms of help are available for anxiety. Finding the right support for your needs may seem overwhelming, but exploring the options and understanding what might work best for you is essential.
Many therapists and counsellors, myself included, offer a free initial conversation, and this is a good way to see if you and the therapist are a good match.
Borkovec, T. D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., & DePree, J. A. (1983). Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21(1), 9-16.