Insights into Psychology Series

What Is… Anxiety vs. Worry

Chart contrasting anxiety and worry

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

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.

Worry

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.

Measurement

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?

This module on worry comes from the Centre for Clinical Interventions.

Sources

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

20 thoughts on “What Is… Anxiety vs. Worry”

  1. I used to worry a lot but medication and therapy have managed to calm that storm.

    I sometimes get the physical sensations of anxiety (‘something is going to go wrong my mind responds’) but sometimes I think it is because I’m really tired or that I have some ‘teached helplessness’ (Seligmann) I don’t know what the term is in English. But that I expect not being able to cope with things (life) because of earlier experiences. So that is not logical and not in my head but purely in my body as maybe a reaction to the tiredness.

    1. Learned helplessness in English.

      It’s hard evaluating coping ability because to some extent it’s useful to recognize the kinds of things that may pose a risk of relapse. Although I guess the thought process for that would be different than the more automatic anxiety and worry.

      1. Yes, I’m working on decoding the warning signs of a relapse.
        I also learned that my body is really out of balance and that it sends some (very) strong signals sometimes because it was never really attended too. In that regard I can understand the ‘anxiety’.

  2. I’ve always been a worrier and then a few years back the anxiety kicked in. Now I think I’m neither on the whole. For me anxiety leads very quickly to depression. I didn’t realise that until recently. I suspect is my coping mechanism. Absolutely hate that feeling of anxiety so I’ll do anything to get rid or avoid. Drinking booze was one strategy, shutting down and disengaging was the other. Luckily taking alcohol out of the loop has reduced anxiety and therefore lessened the periods of depression or low mood.

  3. I have anxiety as you know. Not as bad as it once was, but can still creep in times.

    I am also a worrier at times. A lot has been mainly to do with my mum and this can trigger some of the anxiety off.
    Anxiety has also been caused by other different things in the past, which were a not to do with mum, but other things.

      1. It’s certainly helped. The triggers now is when I have certain thoughts. But thankfully, I am learning to not worry about something that I don’t even know if it will happen.
        I also remind myself that in the event of the unexpected in the future and I can’t cope, my counsellor will be the first person I will contact.

          1. Yes. I won’t hesitate. My counsellor also reminded me that if I ever need to chat again. Even if it’s a one off, to contact her, so I can offload.

  4. We tried to take the Penn State Worry quiz and could not answer even the first question. We read the next question and could not answer it either. It was a little alarming, and then someone inside remembered we have me’s. This is what DID is like sometimes. We could not agree on what the question meant, which rendered answering no easier.

    Yesterday, we got stuck in loops over the same decision. Should we do this? How about this? This? And then someone inside would realize that we’ve considered like 35 possibilities, had narrowed it down to a few, and now we’re just starting the process all over again. Not sure if worry is a part of it or anxiety in making the wrong decision. Or if it is just DID and lack of executive functioning: No decider.

    We like learning things like this. Today we are not able to understand how it relates to us. We do know what we really love you! Hope you are well today

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