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 both. 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.
Worrying is a cognitive process that’s directed towards the future. It’s cognitively based, and it doesn’t have the same emotional element that 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.
Worrying can fixate 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.
Lack of problem-solving
Worry focuses on the problem without taking that next step to problem-solving. It’s sort of like the future tense version of rumination in that it goes around in circles over the problem without generating solutions.
While it’s important to understand what the problem is in order to find solutions, worry differs from attempts to gain understanding because it stays stuck on the problem. In the problem-solving process, gaining understanding of the problem is a first step, not a treadmill. Worry expends a lot of mental energy without any return on investment.
Worrying and shoulds
Excessive worrying 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 and productive. This, in turn, may fuel a sense that one should worry in order to minimize the risk of negative outcomes.
Shoulds are a type of cognitive distortion that can trap us in patterns of thinking that aren’t helping us. Once you get into the pattern of thinking that you should worry in order to improve outcomes, the cognitive bias known as confirmation bias will lead you to selectively look for information to support your belief that worry is necessary and ignore information that doesn’t support that belief.
In cognitive behavioural therapy, behavioural experiments can be used to test worry-related predictions to accumulate evidence that worry is not reality-based.
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
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.