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Worried or Anxious - Is there a difference?

Your 5-minute alarm snooze turned into an hour-long nap, and now you’re late for work.

Your class test is due tomorrow, and you still haven’t started working on it.

Your daughter is sick, and you’re waiting for the doctor’s report.

We all have innumerable situations in our daily lives which make us worry. Worrying about an imminent threat or problem is a positive mechanism our brains use to analyze, rationalize, and overcome issues. But we often confuse this worry with another term- anxiety. How is it different? Moreover, how does it matter what word you use? 

Worry is the cognitive aspect of anxiety. Worrying helps us solve complex problems by thinking about them, sometimes over and over again. But this is not to say that if you worry, you have anxiety. There are certain key differences between worry and anxiety, and it is important to understand these differences because, unlike day-to-day worries, anxiety is a disorder and needs to be addressed by a professional, either through therapy, medication, or both. 

1. Worry is often rational and planned, whereas anxiety is irrational and unplanned 

Think about the above situation. You haven’t studied for the test which is happening the next day, and are therefore worried. There’s a cause-effect relationship between the issue (not having studied for the test) and the response (being worried about whether you would fail). This is a rational reaction and is necessary to get you to start understanding the urgency of the situation and take action. But in the case of anxiety, there might not be this cause-effect path. It's when you worry excessively about failing the test, even when you’ve studied and revised the topics. Or that your pen would stop working midway through the test, or any number of distant possibilities, that are not an immediate threat. And unlike worry, anxiety doesn’t always need a cause in the first place. It can flare up, almost spontaneously, when you least expect it. 

2. The stress factor 

Stress is the physiological aspect of anxiety. Worry is usually associated with only minor physical symptoms such as a nervous stomach. But when worry becomes distorted, compulsive, and stuck in a repetitive cycle, it develops into anxiety, and this has several physiological manifestations such as increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, lack of appetite, nausea, insomnia, etc. These symptoms are persistent and are often triggered during an anxiety episode. 

3. Worry goes away, but anxiety does not 

As mentioned before, worry is often a reaction to a real or forthcoming hurdle. And more often than not, you stop worrying once that problem is resolved. Take for eg., you haven’t prepared for your upcoming test. You worry about the possibility of failure, and therefore 

study harder than ever that night. You manage to finish the topics for the test. This usually removes the worry and the emotions such as fear associated with the issue at hand. But when it comes to anxiety, solving the problem doesn’t take the stress and compulsive thoughts away. Since anxiety is not specific to a problem, there’s an unfounded, impending sense of doom, constantly lingering in your mind.

4. Anxiety can affect normal daily functioning, unlike worry 

Worrying about a problem doesn’t usually affect your quality of life and how you function in your daily activities. But it’s a different story when it comes to anxiety. With the physiological stress responses at play, on top of the deformed and compulsive thought patterns, anxiety can be exhausting and frequently impairs the way you function. You feel disinterested and unable to even do the day-to-day chores or work. 

If you feel that you are constantly worried, often without a cause, or that you are experiencing physical effects of stress, know that it is not just in your head and that it could be an anxiety disorder. Get in touch with a professional, who can help you understand the problem, and improve your state of mind and the overall quality of your life.