Roslin Macdonald
About Author

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations.

But in some cases, it becomes excessive and can cause sufferers to dread everyday situations. Other anxiety-related issues include panic attacks—severe episodes of anxiety, which happen in response to specific triggers—and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is marked by persistent invasive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviours (such as hand-washing).

Anxiety so frequently co-occurs with depression that the two are thought to be twin faces of one issue. Like depression, it strikes twice as many females as males.

Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, this does not make development of the condition inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive to stress.

The exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations that typify anxiety are often accompanied by physical symptoms. These include muscle tension, headaches, stomach cramps, and frequent urination. Behavioural therapies, with or without medication to control symptoms, have proved highly effective against anxiety, especially in children.

10 Differences between Worry and Anxiety

  • We tend to experience worry in our heads and anxiety in our bodies. Worry tends to be more focused on thoughts in our heads while anxiety is more visceral in that we feel it throughout our bodies.
  • Worry tends to be specific while anxiety is more diffuse. We worry about getting to the airport on time (specific threat) but we feel anxious about ‘traveling’ (a vaguer and more general concern).
  • Worry is verbally focused while anxiety includes verbal thoughts and mental imagery. This difference is important as emotional mental images such as those associated with anxiety provoke a much greater cardiovascular response than emotional verbal thoughts (such as those associated with worry). This is another reason why anxiety is experienced throughout the body.
  • Worry often triggers problem solving but anxiety does not. Worry can lead us to think about solutions and strategies for dealing with a given situation. Anxiety is more like a hamster wheel that spins us around but doesn’t lead us to productive solutions (indeed, anxiety’s diffuse nature makes it less amenable to problem solving).
  • Worry creates mild emotional distress, anxiety can create severe emotional distress. Anxiety is simply a much more powerful and hence, disruptive and problematic psychological state than worry.
  • Worry is caused by more realistic concerns than anxiety. If you’re concerned about getting fired because you did really poorly on a project, you’re worried. If you’re concerned about getting fired because your boss didn’t ask about your child’s piano recital, you’re anxious.
  • Worry tends to be controllable, anxiety much less so. By problem solving and thinking through strategies to deal with the cause of our worry we can diminish it greatly. We have much less control over our anxiety as it is much harder to ‘talk ourselves out of it’.
  • Worry tends to be a temporary state but anxiety can linger. Once the issue worrying us is resolved our worry diminishes and disappears. Anxiety can linger for long periods of time and even jump from one focus to another (e.g., one week we feel anxious about work, then about our health, then about our kids...).  
  • Worry doesn't impact our professional and personal functioning while anxiety does. No one takes a sick day to sit and worry about whether their teenager will do well on their finals. But anxiety can make us feel so restless, uncomfortable, and incapable of concentrating, we might literally feel too distressed to work.
  • Worry is considered a normative psychological state while anxiety is not. In certain intensities and duration, anxiety is considered a real mental disorder, one that requires psychological treatment and/or medication.
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