The Difference Between Worry and Anxiety: Knowing When It’s Time to Seek Help.

By Julie Love-Richardson, LCPC.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “The most productive way to resolve [insert problem here] is to dwell on it.”?  Most likely, the answer is NO.

Nevertheless, when you are dealing with a difficult co-worker, problems in your relationship, passing an exam, fitting in at a new school, etc., you may find yourself analyzing the situation in your mind until you are so overwhelmed by fear and self-doubt that you become physically exhausted. Eventually, you may find yourself struggling to stay focused or even losing sleep.

We all worry. It’s human. It might ease your mind to know that worrying isn’t always even a bad thing. In her article, ”The Surprising Upsides of Worry,” University of California Riverside psychology professor, Kate Sweeny reminds us:

“Worry illuminates the importance of taking action to prevent an undesirable outcome and keeps the situation at the front of one’s mind to ensure that appropriate action is taken. It also triggers efforts to mitigate the consequences of bad news, motivates productive behavior that in turn reduces worry, and enhances the effectiveness of goal‐directed action.” 

Worry is a natural coping strategy when we face uncertainty. Like it or not, it serves a purpose.

When Anxiety Takes Over

 

Obviously, my point is not to advocate for us all to worry more; I think that our society collectively does a pretty good job of that already. Our biggest challenge is being able to catch ourselves before common worry is transformed into something more serious like anxiety.    

Worries become anxiety when the problem is not resolved, but instead becomes compounded by negative thoughts and irrational fears. Anxiety has a way of leading us to new worries and even returning to old ones. Suddenly past concerns are important again and our minds become preoccupied with fear, self-doubt, and judgment.

Anxiety has the ability to consume our everyday lives before we know it, and our bodies begin to feel the impact.  We may experience sleep disruptions, appetite changes, heart palpitations, headaches, sweaty palms, breakouts, cold sores, or muscle tension. The effects of anxiety can be even more damaging than the original worry itself and are unproductive at best.

Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of the insidious progression from worry to anxiety. Think of it like this: you going online to view watch a video, then after two hours, you wake up from a trance, notice the time on the clock, and realize that you have fallen down that YouTube abyss. You wake up from your trance, notice the time on the clock, and wonder where the last hour (or two) went. The same thing can happen when negative thoughts and fears take over. Anxiety causes us to lose touch with ourselves and the reality of our situation.

Developing self-awareness is vital for those of us who are prone to anxiety.  With increased awareness, you can unlock the ability to identify our thoughts and feelings, and then recognize where they are taking you.  You can stay in control of your worries and guide your life in the direction you choose before anxiety takes the wheel. 

Therapy is a great starting point on your journey of self discovery.  Talking to a trained mental health professional who is there to listen as you explore your thoughts and feelings is not only a great springboard for developing self-knowledge, but also a safe space to gain genuine support and encouragement along the way.

 

References: Kate Sweeny, Michael D. Dooley. The surprising upsides of worry. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2017; 11 (4): e12311 DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12311

Julie is trained in group, individual, and family therapy. She assists couples and adults with relationships, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief and loss, post traumatic stress disorder, work-life balance, adjustment issues, and domestic abuse.
Ammirati Counseling is a full-service group practice on Chicago's North Shore with offices in Bannockburn and Downers Grovers. Therapists also offer private therapy via remote online. They provide comprehensive care to children, teens, adults, couples, and families.
Julie Love-Richardson
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