“You worry too much.” How many times has someone told you that?
While worry is a part of anxiety, it’s certainly not the same thing. And confusing the two can lead to frustration for the people who do have anxiety.
So, how do you tell the difference? Here are seven ways worry and anxiety are different.
1. Worry means you control the intensity and duration of your worrying. With anxiety, it’s not that easy.
We all worry at some point, and most of us worry daily. According to clinical psychologist Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, those who worry — meaning everybody — can control the intensity and duration of their worry thoughts.
“For example, someone who worries can get diverted onto some other task and forget about their worry thoughts,” Forshee explains. But someone with anxiety may struggle to shift their attention from one task to the next, which causes the worry thoughts to consume them.
2. Worry can cause mild (and temporary) physical tension. Anxiety causes more intense physical reactions.
When you worry, you tend to experience a generalized physical tension. Forshee says it’s often very short in duration compared to someone who has anxiety.
“Someone who has anxiety tends to experience a significantly higher number of physical symptoms, including headaches, generalized tension, tightness in their chest, and trembling,” she adds.
3. Worry leads to thoughts you can typically keep in perspective. Anxiety can make you think ‘worst-case scenario.’
Forshee says defining this difference isn’t about realistic versus unrealistic thoughts because, generally, people who have worry or anxiety can alternate between realistic and unrealistic thoughts.
“The defining difference is the fact that those with anxiety blow things out of proportion much more frequently and with much more intensity than someone who is struggling with worry thoughts about something,” Forshee says.
Those who have anxiety have a very difficult time ridding themselves of those catastrophic thoughts.
4. Real events cause worry. The mind creates anxiety.
When you worry, you’re typically thinking about an actual event that’s taking place or is going to take place. But when you’re dealing with anxiety, you tend to hyperfocus on events or ideas that your mind creates.
For example, someone might worry about their spouse while they’re climbing a ladder, since they may fall off and injure themselves. But an anxious person, explains Natalie Moore, LMFT, may wake up feeling an impending sense of doom that their spouse is going to die, and they have no idea where this notion is coming from.
5. Worry ebbs and flows. Anxiety sticks around and affects your quality of life.
For many people, worry comes and goes, and the results don’t affect your daily life. But Moore says anxiety causes more frequent and intense discomfort that’s great enough to impact your quality of life.
6. Worry can be productive. Anxiety can be debilitating.
“Worry can be productive if it generates solutions to real problems,” explains Nicki Nance, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College.
In fact, Moore says that a certain amount of worry is completely normal and actually necessary for humans to protect their own safety and the safety of loved ones. However, the excessive worrying that often accompanies anxiety can be damaging if it prevents you from meeting responsibilities or interferes with relationships.
7. Worry doesn’t need to be treated. But anxiety may benefit from professional help.
Since worry is a part of our daily lives, it’s typically a feeling we can control without seeking professional help. But managing anxiety that’s intense and persistent often requires the help of a mental health professional.
If you or someone you know has concerns about an anxiety disorder, it’s important that you seek professional help. Talk to a doctor or other healthcare provider about treatment options to help manage the symptoms of anxiety.
Sara Lindberg, BS, M.Ed, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.