Worry is a natural human emotion. We all experience periods of increased worry during stressful times. Sometimes though, what you are feeling is actually anxiety, and it can be difficult to tell the difference.
It’s important that you can recognise when you are experiencing anxiety, because it may be a sign you should try and get some help.
For example, it would be completely normal to worry in the following scenario:
You are a single mother of two and you can’t find your house keys, but you have to leave for work soon.
However, there are certain traits to anxiety which can help you identify what you are feeling as being more than just worry.
1. Anxious thoughts are likely to spiral into a catastrophic conclusion.
What often separates worry form anxiety are the thoughts which result from a stressful situation. With anxiety you are more likely to imagine increasingly negative ramifications because of the situation you are in, often ending in a terrible, climatic ending.
Two catastrophic thought processes for the lost keys scenario could look like this:
a) If you are late for work you will be fired -> if you are fired you will never get another job -> if you can’t get a job your won’t be able to look after your children -> if you cant look after your children, they will be taken away -> if your children are taken away your life will be ruined.
b) You can’t remember losing your keys in the house, so they must be somewhere else -> if a stranger finds them they may break into your house -> if one of your children hears them, the stranger may attack your child -> your child may die -> you won’t be able to cope and your other child will be taken away from you -> your life will be ruined.
These thought processes possibly sound very extreme, especially when you compare the end thought with the original problem. However, for many people, variations on these thought processes wouldn’t be unusual in similar situations.
2. Anxiety is more likely to make it difficult to find a solution.
Whilst worry can cloud your judgement and rational thinking temporarily, you will most likely be able to take steps to deal with the situation fairly quickly.
In the example above, you could decide to call in to work and tell them about the situation, search the house again or call a locksmith if the keys were nowhere to be found. But if anxiety takes over it can paralyse rational thought, making it difficult to decide what action to take.
3. Anxiety is likely to effect how you feel emotionally and physically more strongly and for a longer time period.
In some instances, someone with anxiety may be able to take steps to rectify their situation but find no relief from the way they feel. Their mind (and most likely their body) will continue to act as if the problem just occurred, even after it has been resolved for some time.
The emotional reaction (often a feeling of panic) and the physical reaction (increased heart rate, fast or laboured breathing, sweating, shaking etc.) are also likely to be more intense.
This makes sense as our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are all connected. So, the reaction to the thought “I can’t find my keys” is understandably less intense than the reaction to “My life will be ruined”.
4. Anxious thoughts are not necessarily impossible, but they are highly improbable and unhelpful.
It can be harmful to think of your anxious thoughts as “stupid” or “irrational” (even though you may hear them described as irrational thoughts from some sources). This is because it dismisses the way you feel, and places blame on yourself for thinking the way you do.
Instead it can be more helpful to think of anxious thoughts as potentially (although highly unlikely) possible. In this way we can have compassion for ourselves and understand that we are trying to protect ourselves from having a terrible outcome occur unexpectedly. Anxious thoughts are in their own way, an attempt to be helpful in a bad situation.
However, the extreme nature of these thoughts means the actual outcome will be no way near as bad as predicted 99.9% of the time. Meaning that an attempt to forewarn ourselves of a future (which probably won’t ever happen) is misguided.
As we have covered above, letting ourselves be led down these disastrous thought spirals also makes it less likely we will come up with a solution and will result in increased suffering for a longer period of time. This makes anxious thoughts particularly unhelpful at times where we need to be able to think clearly to solve a problem.
If you can identify with any of these 4 points, you may be struggling with anxiety.
Although it isn’t recommended that you try and self-diagnose, you may want to consider talking to a counsellor about the way you have been feeling.
Anxiety is something a lot of clients come to me about and I never judge them for what they are experiencing or the way they think. I am also very experienced helping people understand and overcome their anxious thought patterns so I would be happy to work with you too.