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Am I Worried or Anxious?

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Have you ever stayed awake overnight thinking about the upcoming day?  Perhaps you’re starting a new job or a new school?  Perhaps you have an interview or presentation?  In these moments you may feel like your heart is pounding, your palms may feel sweaty, and all the ‘what ifs’ and possibilities are swirling in your thoughts.  If this sounds familiar you may wonder if what you’re feeling is anxiety or general worry.  People often use the terms worry and anxiety interchangeably, and while both are associated with concern, they are experienced very differently.  So what is the difference between the two?

Difference between worry and anxiety

First of all, it is important to recognize that anxiety is normal.  It is the body’s response system that goes into an alert state when the brain senses danger.  When this occurs, your brain sends out a signal to your body which results in a fight, flight, or freeze response.  Anxiety is a natural, protective reaction which keeps us safe, and can even help our performance.   However, anxiety can become problematic if you notice everyday experiences and regular activities (such as going to school or work, walking to your vehicle, and completing assignments) causing large reactions which may appear out of context in relation to the event. 

Worry is a common and natural response to concerns, and is primarily experienced in the form of thoughts.  It is temporary, specific and situational, and does not impede our functioning.  For example, if you have an interview, you may worry about the traffic situation or the weather.  This example highlights that the specific worry of arriving at an interview on time is realistic in the context of the situation.  Worry also engages in our ability to problem solve, and by planning to head out earlier, the temporary concern for weather and traffic can be resolved. You don’t want to be late, so planning ahead for realistic possibilities helps to diminish the concern. Functioning is not impeded because we are able to problem solve.  

Anxiety is experienced in our bodies, it is more broad, ongoing, and can impede functioning.  It may present as stomach aches, headaches, muscle tension and rigidity, and panic like symptoms.  Anxiety is a natural response to perceived or real danger, and in these moments the brain is saying, “you’re not safe!”  When this occurs, the brain assesses the best chance for survival, and our bodies respond naturally by fleeing, freezing, or fighting.  Anxiety is experienced most days, and may present as intrusive thoughts, irrational fears, avoidance of situations, and reactions which are out of context.  In children, this may present as an inability to go to school due to a fear of getting hurt, or may show up as an excessive concern for parents and guardians.  For example, a child may say, “I don’t want to leave the house because I’m worried something bad might happen to my parents.”  Children can experience stomach pains, headaches, nausea, and may even throw up in response to the anxiety provoking event of going to school.  

Worry allows us to engage in problem solving; however, anxiety does not provide us with the ability to do so.  This is because the reasoning part of the brain is no longer active when we are in an anxious state, and rather than finding a solution, we may feel stuck with the same thoughts constantly churning.  

What can help?

When we experience anxiety, we are in a state of alert, and the reasoning part of the brain goes offline.  In order to bring the brain and body back into a state of functioning, it is first important to regulate.  Regulation involves breathing and grounding techniques.  There are many apps available online, and strategies can also be accessed through online sources such as Anxiety Canada.  Anxiety shows up in our bodies because the brain is preparing for a fight, flight, or freeze response.  Getting outside, engaging in physical activity, and even play, helps to regulate the body, and helps to bring the reasoning part of the brain back online.  Another helpful approach is switching off the outside noise that comes from television, electronics, and other sources, and reconnecting with yourself through mindfulness techniques.  Regularly engaging in things such as meditation, reading, going for walks, and yoga allows the body and mind to stay focused on the present moment. 

Stay safe and healthy everyone 😉

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About the author

Baljinder Sull

Baljinder Sull

For more information please contact:
Baljinder Sull, M.C.,
Registered Psychologist at Sull Psychology Services

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