In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s terms are anxiety vs. worry.
Anxiety and worry are both normal human experiences, but when severe they can be elements of mental illness. Notably, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) features both of them. People with high levels of neuroticism as a personality trait also tend to have high levels of anxiety and worry. While anxiety and worry may coexist and have some similarities, there are also some differences.
Anxiety involves feelings of dread over anticipated events. It’s an emotion that has associated cognitive and physiological elements; it’s a whole enchilada experience.
Anxiety is a natural response to perceived threats. We all have cognitive biases (mental shortcuts to make our minds more efficient) that can feed into anxiety, including feelings of anxiety in social situations. Fear is the term for an anxious response to immediate threats, and it involves activation of the automatic fight/flight/freeze system, which can trigger panic attacks.
Low levels of anxiety can actually improve performance, but high levels of anxiety can have a significant negative impact on overall functioning. More severe anxiety can be quite persistent and difficult to control.
Wikipedia offers this somewhat wordy definition:
Worry refers to the thoughts, images, emotions, and actions of a negative nature in a repetitive, uncontrollable manner that results from a proactive cognitive risk analysis made to avoid or solve anticipated potential threats and their potential consequences.
Worry is a cognitive process that’s directed towards the future.& Because it’s cognitively based, it tends to produce less emotional distress than anxiety does. It also tends to be more specific than anxiety, and it’s quite verbally focused, without the mental imagery that can accompany anxiety.
Worry can be fixated on personal issues or issues in the broader world, and it tends to revolve around more realistic concerns than anxiety does. It’s associated with an external locus of control, i.e. the belief that control over events is outside of oneself.
Excessive worry can result in overestimation of future dangers. This can lead to avoidance, and then when the feared outcome doesn’t happen, it’s interpreted as the worrying being effective. This, in turn, may fuel a sense that one should worry in order to minimize the risk of negative outcomes. A major focus in therapy for worry-related issues exposure to learn that worry does not match outcomes.
Measuring anxiety & worry
The Penn State Worry Questionnaire can be used to evaluate the level of worrying, and in case you’re interested in taking it, there’s a version of the PSWQ here.
The Hamilton Anxiety Scale is sometimes used in clinical practice to assess levels of anxiety symptoms. It’s not meant to be used for self-report, but there’s a version of the HAM-A here that gives an idea of the range of physical manifestations of anxiety.
I sometimes experience anxiety as part of my depression, but it’s usually physical symptoms, without a strong emotional or cognitive element. I never used to be a worrier, but over the last couple of years, I have regular but brief spurts of worrying about being able to support myself that kick in around bedtime. Aside from that, though, for the most part I don’t do all that much worrying.
Do you struggle with worry or anxiety? Or both?
- Harvard Health Publishing: Do I have anxiety or worry? What’s the difference?
- Psychology Today: 10 Crucial differences between worry and anxiety
- Wikipedia: Anxiety | Worry