How Worry Becomes Anxiety

I’ve usually thought of worry as a normal thing for most people at some point, and a more frequent occurrence for people who would be considered ‘worriers’. I differentiated that from anxiety, which seemed a more chronic condition allied to depression and panic, and required more serious addressing like counselling, behavioural changes, or medication. And while I always knew that I was a worrier, I didn’t consider myself an anxious person.

However, I went through a bout of what I would call anxiety in the year before I got married, which of course made me realise that I was more than just a worrier. What I mean by anxiety is an obsessive, out-of-control habit of worrying which can cause physical symptoms of stress. It can take the form of imagining terrible scenarios, and seems (to me and, I think, for many others) to feed on ‘what if?’ questions. The classic anxiety for me centred around asking ‘what if?’ about any number of ways that my relationship with Mike might dissolve, and then imagining the conversation, the argument, the breakup, the awful aftermath.

What I learned is that worry and anxiety are simply degrees on the same continuum. I read on a personal blog once that we need to beware of indulging in ‘recreational worry’, the analogy being with ‘recreational drugs’: we might indulge for a while thinking it’s just a harmless pastime, but it always has the potential to become addictive and destructive. Worry can transform very quickly into anxiety under the right conditions. Some of those conditions are external: the loss of support, sickness, some kind of upheaval. But many of those conditions are mental, a change in the way we think about, or respond to, our worries that turn them into full-blown anxieties.

Here are four ways of thinking which, in my experience, make anxiety different from worry.

Taking the presence of worry itself as indicating something true

Have you ever heard advice like this?: ‘If you feel worried about the relationship, don’t ignore it! If you’re worried about something, that means it’s an issue!’

And, taken straightforwardly, this is simply the advice to listen to your own intuitions and not gloss over potential problems. It makes sense. But this perspective, taken to extremes, suggests that worry is always meaningful in itself: that worrying about something means that thing is an issue. The logic runs like this: If you’re worried about a relationship, maybe it isn’t right. If you’re worried that the career you’ve chosen is the wrong one, then that suggests it really might be the wrong one. If you’re worried that the weird pain in your leg is a tumour, that’s your intuition telling you that you have cancer!

For a worrier (I find), almost anything can be the subject of worry. The logic ‘if you’re worried, it’s a problem’ thus makes every thought a minefield to a worried person. It means that no worry can simply be dismissed, because that logic says that the worry always points to something true. To me, it’s at this point that worry becomes full-blown anxiety, because the logic refuses to allow you to dismiss the concern or keep it in perspective.

Directing the worry towards long-term and unresolvable questions

Sometimes worry is about issues that will be resolved. You’re worried that you won’t know anyone at the party. You might worry about it all day. But at 8pm that night, you will know the answer to your worry: you’ll arrive at the party, and either you’ll spot a friend and your worry will prove unfounded, or you’ll sit all evening talking to strangers and your worst fears will materialise. But in either event, the question ‘will I know anyone at the party?’ is answered and the issue is closed. This is an issue for worry (rightly or wrongly so), but not an issue for long-term anxiety.

But what if your worry is about finances, and directed towards this question: ‘what if the market crashes when I’m 55 and all my retirement money is lost?’ This is a long-term question if you’re my age. What if I worried about this daily, for the next nearly thirty years of my life? Fearing the economy every day? Wondering every day whether I should buy coffee because maybe at age 60 I’ll need that £2.00…that’s anxiety. The difference here is that there can be no immediate answer to the question; I would have to wait years to know, meaning that the worry, the niggle, can recur again and again, uncontrollably, for all the time in between.

Becoming addicted to the worry

As I’ve already said, worry is about something that will have an answer sooner or later. Usually, what we most want is to know the outcome and thus be free of the worry. However, as I’ve already said, anxiety fastens onto things that have no immediate answer, meaning it’s possible to be persistently anxious about something for a long time with no solution. At that point, the anxiety itself becomes an addiction, and you actually feel that something’s wrong if you aren’t anxious. So you hunt in your memory for what it is you’re supposed to be anxious about, and can usually find something. Thus, even in an otherwise peaceful or happy moment, the feeling of ‘something being wrong’ can cause you to dredge up some old anxiety, not because you want it exactly, but because you can’t rest without it.

Believing that action is urgently required

People always say, ‘Don’t bother to worry about something if it’s out of your control.’ But I find that, once worries have crossed over into anxieties, it’s partly because of the belief that some part of the situation is in my control. Although I worried, in the early days when I was with Mike, that he might lose interest in me, I knew that it was something not really in my control. Once I saw that it was unrealistic to worry about it, I stopped. However, what I really felt anxious about were things that I believed to be in my control. What if I was making a huge mistake? What if I handled something badly? What if I drove him away with my awfulness? What if my own motivations were wrong?

To a large extent, these anxieties plagued me because, if there were any truth to them, action was required on my part. I certainly believed that if, at any point, I had decided that I categorically didn’t want to marry Mike, I owed it to him to break off the relationship instead of letting it linger on forever. The logic was, ‘If this is the case, then I must take immediate action, and therefore I must figure out the answer to this immediately‘. This kind of logic produces an ’emergency’ mindset even where there is no emergency, by assuming too much control and responsibility for a situation.

In conclusion

This is a brief discussion of a complex subject, but I hope it’s helpful. It’s mainly the result of my own sifting through my anxious habits of mind. Much like unnecessary guilt, I find that anxiety is something that looks irrational on the outside, but has an insidious kind of logic that can seem valid on the inside – hence why other people say ‘It’s no big deal’ and those suffering from anxiety say, ‘But it feels huge’. Picking anxiety apart takes more than simply saying, ‘That’s silly.’ It requires dismantling the apparent logic from the inside. Lately, I’ve found that I’m becoming better at recognising the transitions between an everyday worry and anxiety, and thus am becoming better at stopping worried thoughts before they escalate into anything else.


2 thoughts on “How Worry Becomes Anxiety

  1. I used to enjoy rock climbing, which gave me quite a useful insight into controlling worry. When leading a climb, a small slip could send me tumbling down, only to stop when the rope came tight on the gear I’d placed in the rock. When I was several feet above my gear, that was obviously a worrying thought. In these moments, I might try a move and my feet would feel like they were slipping, which would tempt me to abandon the route and downclimb, but the fact was that my feet wouldn’t slip, they just felt like that. In order to proceed, I had to learn to recognise the feelings of panic and rely on my experience, which told me that my feet were placed well – that they wouldn’t slip no matter what my paranoia told me – and take the calculated risk of going for the next hold.

    Climbing’s a high stakes game where you can die if you get something wrong, but it teaches you to recognise irrational worry for what it is, and to deal with it. Climbing also teaches you to make a cool appraisal of the very real risks involved before deciding on your course of action. You need to have a tremendous amount of trust both in your gear placement – if it rips out of the rock you have BIG problems – and in your partner on the other end of the rope, because they hold your life in their hands.

    I don’t climb anymore, largely for medical reasons which, for all my antics on exposed rocks, weren’t climbing-related. They were caused in a car crash, and sadder still, my old climbing partner at uni was killed when she slipped on easy grass slopes while walking home from the mountains. The truth is, risk is inescapable. There are risks we can control, and the solution to those is to control them, not to worry about them. There are then risks we can’t control, and those we have to to accept – we have to learn to surrender a bit of control. The two aren’t always what we think they are either: just because something frightens us, doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, so we need to learn to recognise and control for the limitations and biases of our own fear.

    As you say, worry (or rather, anxiety) can be self-indulgent. It can cripple us, leave us in a worse situation than if taken either of the paths that we were too nervous to decide between, and hurt other people in the process – because I’ve found that anxiety is the enemy of commitment. On a climb, I had to commit to a move and push myself past the point of return. In life, we have to commit to people for better or for worse – and we’ll never do that if we’re always wondering about the ‘worse’.

    I’ve rambled on too long. I think that when Jesus told us not to worry, he did it because he knows how the devil can use anxiety for his own evil ends. If we can learn to trust instead of worry, we can use our trust in other people to do amazing things that we couldn’t do on our own. God didn’t mean for us to be on our own, but being with other people means we have to trust them – and trust is so much better than worry.

    Here endeth today’s lesson! I think your post is very insightful, I hope you’re doing well?

    1. That’s all very interesting, and I think you’re quite right. I especially like what you said about anxiety being the enemy of commitment – I have found that to be SO true, whether it’s commitment to a person, a particular course of action, or any kind of long-term investment.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this.

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