Feelings of unease are often grouped together, and words like "worry" and "anxiety" are used interchangeably. Despite the similarity of these words, there is a major difference between everyday worry and true, uncontrollable anxiety. If you are wondering if your feelings are a cause for concern, keep the following in mind: worry is a temporary state, while anxiety is a condition.
What Is Worry?
To understand true anxiety, it is important to first talk about worry. Many people define worry in different ways, depending on how they experience the emotion. The Merriam-Webster definition of worry is, "to afflict with mental distress or agitation: to make anxious."
The problem with this definition is that it is a bit misleading. Although it describes the state of worry as a type of mental distress and uses "anxious" as a synonym for worry, worry itself is not a form of mental illness or necessarily a bad thing; in fact, worry can be useful, and can lead people to avoid potentially dangerous situations and people.
After all, everyone worries from time to time. It is a natural response to uncomfortable situations in our lives. Just about anyone you ask will be able to describe a time when they felt worried about something. They will also have an idea of when their feelings of worry are resolved.
Most of our worries are short-lived. However, a more serious form of worry is often referred to as "anxiety." This is just one of the many synonyms for worry we hear. However, uncontrollable anxiety is a much different state of mind than general worry, and the two have little in common.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a term we use to describe excessive or chronic worry. When it comes to mental health, it is often used as a term for a condition called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. GAD is a serious condition and requires treatment from mental health professionals to control symptoms.
An individual is diagnosed with GAD when they display symptoms of uncontrollable, excessive worry for greater than six consecutive months. Other forms of anxiety include:
In this condition, symptoms of anxiety only occur during, or when thinking about social situations. Individuals may fear what others think of them or become nervous at the thought of initiating interactions with others. Those with social anxiety find it difficult, or in some cases impossible, to leave their home or take part in daily routines like school and work. Although social anxiety is often falsely attributed to awkwardness or teenage discomfort, social anxiety can be an extremely debilitating condition, and is not relegate to nor solved by a certain age.
Panic disorder is a severe form of anxiety. It consists of unexpected and extreme bouts of anxiety, resulting in something called a panic attack. While the attacks typically only last a few minutes, they include severe symptoms like chest pain, pounding heart, tingling in the body, and feelings of unreality. Panic attacks can cause individuals to feel as if they are dying or going crazy. In the midst of panic attacks, people are unlikely to be able to be “talked down,” as they are experiencing a whirlwind of bodily and mental symptoms that make panic feel as real and terrifying as a near-death experience.
In some cases, anxiety only occurs during specific situations. Extreme fear responses to people, places, or things are called "phobias". Common phobias include heights, spiders, airplanes, and doctors. It is important to note that, while most of these elements make many people feel uneasy, specific phobias are only diagnosed and treated when the fear response is severe and distressing to the individual. As an example, experiencing discomfort when spiders are near, or a startle response at the sight of a spider are not symptoms of a spider phobia. Instead, a phobia of spiders would prompt feelings of terror and horror, and could prompt intense and severe responses, such as immediate flight, sobbing, or freezing in fear. Mild symptoms of fear regarding a specific person or object would qualify as a dislike of, or a fear of, but not a phobia.
Worrying is feeling uneasy or being overly concerned about a situation or problem. With excessive worrying, your mind and body go into overdrive as you constantly focus on "what might happen."
In the midst of excessive worrying, you may suffer with high anxiety -- even panic -- during waking hours. Many chronic worriers tell of feeling a sense of impending doom or unrealistic fears that only increase their worries. Ultra-sensitive to their environment and to the criticism of others, excessive worriers may see anything -- and anyone -- as a potential threat.
Chronic worrying can affect your daily life so much that it may interfere with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep, and job performance. Many people who worry excessively are so anxiety-ridden that they seek relief in harmful lifestyle habits such as overeating, cigarette smoking, or using alcohol and drugs.
Stressful events such as a test or a job interview can make anyone feel a bit anxious. And sometimes, a little worry or anxiety is helpful. It can help you get ready for an upcoming situation. For instance, if you’re preparing for a job interview, a little worry or anxiety may push you to find out more about the position. Then you can present yourself more professionally to the potential employer. Worrying about a test may help you study more and be more prepared on test day.
But excessive worriers react quickly and intensely to these stressful situations or triggers. Even thinking about the situation can cause chronic worriers great distress and disability. Excessive worry or ongoing fear or anxiety is harmful when it becomes so irrational that you can’t focus on reality or think clearly. People with high anxiety have difficulty shaking their worries. When that happens, they may experience actual physical symptoms.
According to Psychology Today, “Worry tends to be more focused on thoughts in our heads, while anxiety is more visceral in that we feel it throughout our bodies.”
When we worry, our thoughts are often caused by realistic or specific concerns we can resolve by problem solving. An example of a worrying thought is “If I don’t study hard enough, I will not pass my test.” Once you have identified the problem and arrived at the solution- which is to study hard; you are likely to move on from this thought and diminish worry.
On the other hand, when we are experiencing anxiety, our thoughts can be irrational or vague. They can linger for extended periods of time and can impact our lives in a negative way. An example of this is persistently thinking something will go wrong every time you take a test. As a result, you may experience fear or other emotions that will cause your body to react negatively.
Worry and anxiety affect our bodies in different ways. Because worrying tends to be temporary, the effects are mild. You may experience short-term emotional distress or tension. The physical reactions caused by anxiety, however, can be more intense. Someone with anxiety may experience symptoms such as tightness in the chest, an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, headaches, trembling, gastrointestinal problems or trouble sleeping.
The symptoms of anxiety can serve as warning signs of serious health conditions such as anxiety disorder, panic attack or depression. You should speak with a doctor if symptoms are persistent and interfere with daily activities.
A mental health professional can diagnose anxiety by performing a psychological examination. Treatment may involve medication and psychotherapy.
Abdulhakim Bashir Tijjani