How to tell the difference between worrying and anxiety – and when to get help

Worrying and anxiety may seem similar, but there are some key differences between the two. Here’s everything you need to know. 

As much as we might wish it wasn’t, worrying is part and parcel of the human experience. If you’re not worrying about something right now, chances are you’ve worried about something over the last week, whether it was work, money or if you left your hair straighteners on.

This is, of course, completely normal. While excessive worrying can be problematic (more on that later), worrying about things here and there is just something we all have to deal with.  

Worrying is, however, not the same as anxiety – no matter how many people use the terms interchangeably. Feeling anxious on a regular basis isn’t something you should just ‘deal with’ – so knowing the difference between the two can be important when it comes to seeking help.

So, to give you the tools you need to differentiate between worrying and anxiety – and how to cope with both – we spoke to two experts. Here’s what they had to say. 

What’s the difference between worrying and anxiety? 

Worrying and anxiety aren’t the same things.

The main difference between worrying and anxiety is the way in which they manifest. 

Holly Thurston, a psychological wellbeing practitioner at the online therapy service livelife, explains: “Worrying occurs more in our mind and takes form as our thoughts, whereas anxiety is more of an emotion, feeling or physical symptoms.”

Jennifer Warwick, a counsellor with Counselling Directory, elaborates: “Worry is more specific when you’re thinking about something, in particular, that might be happening now or in the future. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more of an overwhelming feeling. Anxiety is more likely to be felt in your body.” 

Warwick continues: “Worry is less likely to impact you over the long term. You might be worried about something but when it resolves itself or it gets fixed or the thing happens you feel okay.

“Anxiety lingers on and it can have a real impact on how you function; affecting how you sleep; how you physically feel in your body, for example, headaches, stomach pains; difficulty in concentrating.” 

How to cope with worry 

Because worrying is more about your thoughts than it is a bodily response, one of the best ways to deal with out-of-control worrying is to try and take control of what’s going on.

“Create a ‘worry time’ – set aside a 15-minute period each day for your worries,” Thurston recommends. “As you go about your day, write your worries down and save them for later. This will help to reduce the amount of time you spend worrying, focus your attention on what’s important, and then when it comes to ‘worry time’ you can give your full attention to the things that are concerning you, thus creating a more productive way of managing these worries.”

If you can’t get one specific worry out of your head, Warwick suggests thinking about the things you could do that would ease your concern. 

“If there is something specific that you’re worried about, consider what is going on, what you’re concerned about, and what tangible things you can put in place to make things feel easier,” Warwick explains. “Give yourself a moment to switch off from your thoughts, take a few deep breaths and then get into problem-solving mode.”

Thurston also recommends using mindfulness as a way to slow down your mind: “Put a timer on for 10 minutes and try to take a non-judgemental approach to any thoughts, worries or feelings that pop up. For this period of time, try observing these things instead of engaging with them. This will help to train your attention and help you learn to not get too consumed by these thoughts and feelings.” 

How to cope with anxiety 

Deep breathing is a useful way to calm anxiety in the moment.

As well as identifying the subject of your anxiety (if there is one), dealing with anxiety is all about finding ways to control the bodily response it triggers. For example, Thurston recommends starting with some box breathing.

“Try box breathing, which involves closing your eyes, breathing in through your nose, trying to use stomach breathing (aim for your stomach to rise instead of your chest) while counting to four slowly, holding your breath while counting slowly to four, then slowly exhaling for four seconds,” she explains. “Repeat these steps for around three times.” 

Thurston also suggests trying a technique called ‘grounding’. When we’re anxious, our attention tends to fall on what’s going on in our body, so turning our focus towards the world around us can help us feel more in control.

“Firstly, try noticing and acknowledging how you feel, for example ‘I am feeling anxious’ or ‘I am feeling overwhelmed’,” Thurston explains. 

“Then, try to move your body – get up for a walk, have a drink of water, do some stretches. Then, focus on your environment – name five things you can see and three things you can hear.”

When to seek help for worry and anxiety 

Whether you’re dealing with worry, anxiety or both, it’s important to seek help from a professional if your mental health is disrupting your life or making it hard for you to complete certain day-to-day activities. You can also reach out pre-emptively if you think you’d benefit from some advice – there’s no ‘point’ you need to reach before you ask for support.

“I think for both feeling worried or anxious you need to recognise you are struggling and might need some support,” Warwick says. “Talking helps – whether this is with a family member, friend or counsellor.” 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

Additionally, you can ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]

Images: Getty

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