SUPPORT: Worry or Anxiety? Free Audio Book Available

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By Gill Seaton-Jardine

It seems to me that one way to start to try to understand something is to look up the definition in the dictionary.  After all, most of us have access to a dictionary, whether it be in book form or online, which gives us the opportunity to work from the same definition and thereby help us to reach an understanding of what the other is describing.  Of course, this is not straight forward as each of us has our own reality and perspective. 

According to the Collins English Dictionary, ‘worry’ is ‘to be, or cause to be anxious or uneasy, especially about something uncertain or potentially dangerous’.

‘Anxiety’ is ‘state of uneasiness or tension caused by apprehension or possible future misfortune, danger’.

The most obvious difference here is that ‘anxiety’ is described as ‘a state’ perhaps suggesting a more continuing condition. Whereas ‘worry’ may come and go depending on what is happening, ‘anxiety’ continues irrespective of what is happening.

‘Worry’ is a normal emotion, present in everybody, and helps us to deal with our world.  It helps us to remember what we need to function in our everyday life.  Awareness and organisation come before worry but we are not all entirely aware or organised.  For example, if we are going out for a walk the ‘aware’ among us will check the weather forecast and plan and organise accordingly i.e. we will take a coat and umbrella if necessary. The less aware will stroll off out of the door, with no such equipment and sometimes get away with it and sometimes get drowned.

Circumstances may alter our awareness. If, for example, we are all dressed up for a wedding or we have a small child with us, we might be a little more concerned, or even worried about the effect the weather may have. Our beautiful dress may get ruined or the small child may get cold. We are talking here about normal, everyday occurrences carrying little risk. 

When the risk increases, the level of awareness increases, leading to worry. This may be when larger issues are involved. Perhaps you are required to produce a report at work by tomorrow and you know you do not have enough time, something has broken in the home like the boiler and you can’t find a plumber or you need the car tomorrow and it may not be ready at the garage. All these types of things will cause worry. Worry, if not allowed to get out of hand, can be very useful as it focusses the mind to think through an answer to the problem. Obviously doing nothing, because you don’t really care, is not going to meet the challenge whereas worry can help consider what resources you may have and how best to use them – so long as it is not overwhelming.

These are all examples of everyday matters which need resolving and if they can be resolved, peace of mind can be restored. As life goes on, that peace of mind will be constantly challenged by life itself, however, going back to the definition we used at the beginning, we can hope that ‘worry’ will pass on resolving the issues causing the ‘uneasiness’ and/or the ‘uncertainty’. 

To move on to ‘anxiety’, we have identified that this is a ‘state’ which perhaps suggests it is more established than ‘a worry’. We tend to talk in terms of ‘a worry’ but not of ‘an anxiety’. So, what are the differences?

We demonstrate many symptoms when we are worried or anxious. These symptoms can be by our thoughts, our moods, our behaviours as well as physical indicators but they will be more extreme in the case of anxiety.

We may experience a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, tight muscles and/or dizziness, sweating, dry mouth, nausea, needing to urinate more often – all physical signs of anxiety. We may overestimate danger, underestimate our own ability to cope, underestimate help and start to catastrophise. Our mood is likely to be nervous, on edge perhaps panicky and these feelings may lead us to try to avoid the anxiety situations or leave the situation as soon as the anxiety begins. All of these symptoms are likely to make us either do only things where we feel safe or to try to control anything with which we are involved thereby never allowing ourselves to relax. As can be seen, anxiety, if left to continue, will likely have a huge effect on our lives rendering us incapable of leading our lives as we would wish.

So, what can we do?  As always, we need to start with self-care. Self- care is essential to maintain physical and mental wellbeing and will be more difficult to manage, if not impossible, where there is poor psychological health. Self-care consists of such things as ensuring a good diet, enough rest and sleep, exercise, downtime from all daily activities, time to think your own thoughts, connection with friends and family, a sense of purpose, some goals to aim for, a sense of achievement, a sense of belonging, time for hobbies, some plans to give us something to look forward to.  This sounds like a huge list and quite a task in itself but this doesn’t mean all these things need doing, it means that we all should pay attention to ourselves and how we are in the ways that are relevant to us as individuals. Everybody will have different details in their self-care. The point is, we all need to take care of ourselves by remaining aware of how we are. If we can maintain ourselves effectively, we are more able to deal with the demands of everyday life. Only an individual really knows how he/she is feeling. We can tell somebody else but we can’t know how the other person interprets what we say so we need to take responsibility for ourselves if we are able.

If we are suffering with anxiety, it can be very hard to take responsibility and therefore things can start to pile up. This is when we may need to seek help, either from friends or family or from a professional. Friends and family can be enormously helpful by listening and perhaps offering practical help if they are able. However, it is not always easy to talk to friends and/or family, this can be for a number of reasons.

You may not want to worry them as they may be affected by all that happens to you. You may not feel comfortable telling them how you feel believing that you should be capable of managing your own affairs. You may be fearful that they may judge you and even criticise you. It can all feel too risky.

Writing about how you feel can be really helpful – just to get it down on paper can stop it all going round and round in your head. You can decide what to do with the paper afterwards. You may want to destroy it, tuck it away somewhere or share it with somebody – your decision.

You may feel that you need some help from a professional, perhaps your GP or a counsellor. In a visit to your GP, you can at least start to talk about your feelings which may well help straight away. He/she may feel a referral to a counsellor or a psychologist may be helpful to you or perhaps medication may be indicated.

It is so important to acknowledge what you are feeling as that will be the start of improving the situation. There is no shame in feeling how you feel – we all experience a whole range of feelings as we go through life. Don’t stay alone with it, take courage and look for the answers – both inside and outside yourself.