Heading to an intense job interview, facing an unexpected event that could change your life significantly, expecting important news… they are enough to kick anyone’s worry and anxiety up. It’s normal and expected. We worry about stuff we find important in our lives, such as finances, relationships, work, etc. Worry is a natural mechanism that can be helpful – motivate us to take action, come up with a strategy to improve our situation and solve the problem. However, as many of us know, it can get out of control and become unproductive, paralyzing, disruptive, and turn into full-blown anxiety. But where is the line? What is the difference between worry and anxiety? How much worry is too much?
People use these terms interchangeably, but being worried is not the same as being anxious. Although worry and anxiety are both associated with concern and discomfort, they manifest differently and their implications for our mental and physical health are very different.
Here are 5 things that can help you distinguish the two and answer the question: “Am I anxious or just worried?”
1. Worry is concrete and directs you toward problem-solving. Anxiety is vaguer and marked by rumination.
Worry is more specific than anxiety. When you are worried, you can pinpoint exactly what you are worried about. With anxiety, it’s not so easy – it’s more of a general feeling of uneasiness about a number of different scenarios. Thus, worry usually prompts us to act, to solve the problem, to use our coping skills, and build a strategy for dealing with a given situation. Anxiety, on the other hand, is paralyzing – it doesn’t direct us toward a concrete solution. Rather, we get caught in an endless spiral of “what ifs”, unable to come up with a solution.
2. Worry usually resides in your thoughts. Anxiety is all over the place – in your mind AND your body.
Worry and anxiety affect your body in different ways. Worry is usually limited to your thoughts that you can verbalize, such as: “I don’t know if I will be able to make it in time” or “Will I be able to pay rent this month?”. You may experience some unpleasant sensations in the body, such as tension and short-term emotional distress, but those are mild.
Anxiety, on the other hand, you feel both in your mind and your body, and pretty intensely so. The physical reactions can vary and can include tightness in the chest, pounding heart, sweating, rapid breathing, trembling, “knot” in the stomach, nausea, trouble sleeping or concentrating, etc. Together with worrying thoughts and an endless spiral of “what ifs”, it occupies our whole system, so it’s not surprising that when we are anxious, it can be really difficult to focus on something else.
3. Worry leads to thoughts you can typically keep in perspective. Anxiety makes you jump to the ‘worst-case scenarios’.
There is a logical component in worry – your brain is trying to protect itself from real and present danger. Anxiety has a wild imagination and brings you into a panic mode for things that, if you stop and think about it logically, or ask someone else, are not very rational. When you are anxious, you overestimate the risk and believe that you will not be able to cope with the consequences.
Of course, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether our concerns are rooted in reality or if they’re completely irrational, especially when we are stressed. What can help us distinguish between worry and anxiety in these situations is the degree of our ability to control our concerns. Usually, a good sign that normal worry turns into anxiety is an inability to put the break on and get it under control.
4. Worry is temporary. Anxiety is more longstanding.
Worry is usually short-term; once we solve the problem or a concerning situation passes, our worry disappears. With anxiety it is more complicated; since it is so vague and intense, it can linger for long periods of time. Also, it is rarely satisfied – when one thing is solved, you start getting anxious about something else.
5. Anxiety often interferes with your daily functioning. Worry usually doesn’t.
If the levels of distress and discomfort are so intense that it makes it hard for you to function (to eat, sleep, concentrate, think about something else, etc.), it is a pretty clear sign of anxiety. Worry is uncomfortable, of course, but it is not as intense and it has milder effects on our physical and mental state.
Tips To Manage Worry And Anxiety
Experiencing worry and a certain level of anxiety is normal. However, when it comes to the point of disrupting your daily functioning – and even before that point – it’s time to react and take steps to decrease it and bring it back to manageable levels. Here are a few tools to try:
1. Schedule worry time
When your mind persistently goes back to the same worries, again and again, this technique can be very helpful. Simply, determine 15-20 minutes of your day that are dedicated to worrying only. This is your time to worry all you want. Outside this time slot, when anxious thoughts arise, tell yourself something like: “I see you, thoughts, but your time is scheduled at 8 PM tonight. I’ll meet you then.”.
Check out more about this technique in our blog post: One Powerful Technique to Ease Your Worrying Mind and Anxiety.
2. Pay attention and question your thoughts
Your anxious mind is not very rational, and will often lie to you and speak nonsense such as: “Everybody thinks you’re a failure”, “You can’t do this”, “You’ll never get this promotion”, etc. When you catch these thoughts playing in your head, stop and remind yourself that they are the product of your anxious brain. Then challenge them by asking yourself questions such as:
- How helpful are these thoughts?
- Are they really true?
- What is the evidence against them?
- What are some other ways I can think about this situation?
- What would I tell to a friend who had the same thought?
Remember, your thoughts are just that – thoughts. They are not always a perfect reflection of reality.
3. Stop jumping to an imagined future and connect with the present moment
There is an old quote from Lao Tzu, a famous Chinese philosopher, that says: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” Although this quote oversimplifies both depression and anxiety (there are many different factors that contribute to them), there is some truth to it. An anxious mind is overly focused on what might happen in the future, spiraling down the hole of endless “what ifs” without an answer. This kind of thinking is unproductive and keeps us in the anxiety loop.
Taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness and focus on the present moment can help take your thoughts away from the past and the future, helping you re-center and think more realistically. If you’re interested to learn more about mindfulness and its benefits, our blog posts Return to Now: Living in the Present Moment and 6 Reasons Why Integrating Mindfulness Into Your Life Is Helpful might be a good place to start.
A few mindfulness techniques you can try:
- Mindful meditation
- 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Focus on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, two things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Focus on your breathing – inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat until you feel calmer.
- Focus on your body and how it relates to the space around you. Feel the ground beneath your feet, how your clothes touch your skin, where you’re sitting or standing, etc. Then ask yourself: “What is wrong with this particular moment? Am I safe right now, this minute? Let’s go one minute at a time.”
4. What are your strengths?
We all face difficulties and hard times during our lifetimes; it’s inevitable. Sometimes our worries come true, and we need to cope with real adversities that come up. Fortunately, research shows that we are, usually, more resilient than we may think.
Resilience is the ability to move through adversaries and rise from them. It is a set of skills and psychological traits that allows us to cope with struggles and recover from them. There are some things we can do to build our resiliency and rise back from difficult experiences more quickly. Read more about it here: 3 Things You Can Do to Recover From Setbacks More Quickly.
In the end, it’s important to know when anxiety increases to clinical levels, so you can react promptly.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by severe, persistent worry that is excessive for the situation, and extreme avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations. These symptoms cause distress, impair daily functioning, and occur for a significant period.
If you are experiencing anxiety so often that it interferes with the quality of your life and impacts your physical and mental health, please do not hesitate to ask for help. There are proven and very effective ways to treat it and cope with it successfully, so you can be happier, more productive, more satisfied You.
How do you cope with worry? Share your tips with us in the comment section below.
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Are you stuck in your head? Do you feel like you are worried about anything and everything all day long? Repeating the same scenarios in your head over and over and spiraling down the hole of anxious thoughts is tiring! We all feel anxious from time to time, but it is about how we deal with it that can make a difference.
Sometimes, worry can be a good thing. When there is a realistic possibility of failure or unpleasant things occurring, worry can motivate us to work harder, prepare and focus on what we can control. However, when it slips into rumination about the things you have no control over, it doesn’t lead to productive or practical solutions. Instead, it triggers unhelpful thought patterns and excessive worry that repeat over and over. It’s completely useless and simply frustrating. But how to stop?
Why Simply Telling Yourself to Stop Worrying is Not Helpful
Your excessive worry isn’t there without a reason. You bother yourself with worst-case scenarios and anxious thoughts because they give you a false sense of control. If you worry too hard, bad things might not happen, right? And if they happen, you’d surely be prepared?
Still, you don’t feel any better if the thing you were worried about really occurs, do you? Think about it.
Remember, worrying gives you a FALSE sense of control. We have a tendency to believe that rumination will bring a sense of relief, but it doesn’t because that tailspin has no end or solution, which just intensifies anxiety more.
Simply telling yourself to stop doing something is not enough because, as mentioned above, somewhere deep down you might believe that worry gives you some sense of control and relief. That’s why your subconscious mind doesn’t let go. However, this sense of control is extremely weak, and the damage to your mental health far outweighs that illusion of the “benefit”.
So the first thing you need to do is to consciously decide to give up on trying to control things you can’t control. Second, stop blaming yourself for feeling anxious. It’s enough you feel overwhelmed in the first place; you don’t need additional pressure. Simply telling yourself to stop worrying doesn’t work. So, what does?
Schedule Worry Time
It may sound counterproductive, but forcing yourself to worry during a specific time of the day may actually help you worry less. Studies consistently show that dedicating 15 to 20 minutes during the day to purposely obsess over things that worry you actually decrease the number of worrying thoughts during the day and helps to ease anxiety.
Rules are simple: schedule 15 minutes at a specific time every day to worry about your problems. Pick a time when you know you’ll be able to focus all your attention to worry without interruptions. However, try to make this time at least 2 hours away from your bedtime to avoid possible difficulties falling asleep.
Okay, now that you made your appointment with worry, spend some time with it. Dedicate your full attention to your anxious thoughts during those 15 minutes, without fighting them or trying to make them go away. Don’t try to think positive or to convince yourself these thoughts are unnecessary. Exactly the opposite – strive to come up with as many worries as you can, and try to be as uncomfortable as possible in reviewing them. If you run out of ideas in those 15 minutes, it’s important to not walk away. The goal is to fill the whole 15 minutes with worry, not a minute more or less. If you spent all your anxious ideas in the first 10 minutes, repeat the ones you already thought over.
When your scheduled date with worry passes, get up and go on with your day. You’ll meet your worry at the same time the next day, but not until then. Anxious thoughts will, of course, try to sneak in and occupy space in your head during the day. Just politely tell them that now is not the time, and they will have to wait until the appointment when you’ll listen to all of them. If they are persistent, instead of getting stuck in your head with them, try some of the mindfulness techniques like focusing on the outside sensations or on your breathing.
There is a little mind twist here. You’re probably frustrated with not being able to run away or combat all those worrying and uncomfortable thoughts; it just seems there are too many of them all the time. However, when you turn tables around and purposefully try to find as many of them as possible, you realize three things:
- There are not so many of them after all,
- Facing your worries and letting unpleasant feelings those obsessing thoughts evoke is not so terrible or unboreable,
- In the end, worrying becomes boring.
These three things change the way you approach your worry and gradually ease your anxiety over anxiety. Instead of becoming all tense on the first thought of worry, you become to experience other emotional responses, like boredom for example. That creates space for making a distance from unhelpful thought patterns and for taking a more realistic perspective.
In the end, one important note: be persistent. Give time for change. When you start practicing this technique, it’s possible that your worry will intensify in the first few days, and it will be more difficult to resist rumination between worry times. That is frustrating, but also totally natural. Just keep up the practice. Emotional changes need time. However, if this technique stirs up extremely strong emotions in you after a week, stop practicing it. Don’t hesitate to ask for additional support. Your therapist will work with you to discover what lies behind your anxious thoughts and feelings, and find techniques and tools that suit you best.