While worry and anxiety can both make you miserable, they are two distinct concepts occurring in different parts of your brain. You can have worry without anxiety, and anxiety without worry, but one often triggers the other, and they tend to be bosom buddies, unfortunately.
Worrying is thought-based, occurs in the mind, and involves your thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, interacting with the limbic system, which controls basic emotions and instincts. The same circuits in your brain that perform planning and problem solving allow worrying. When these parts are busy worrying, you can’t use them for better things. Worry keeps you from focusing on and putting energy into what’s important, can make it harder to connect with others, and is just flat-out exhausting!
Anxiety is physically based, showing up as bodily symptoms, actions, and behaviour, and primarily involves the limbic system interacting with the parts of the brain to turn on the fear circuit. Often, anxiety doesn’t have a conscious component that can be pinpointed and is simply a symptom, like an upset stomach or shortness of breath.
According to The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental diagnosis in the U.S., cost the country $42 billion a year, and go hand-in-hand with depression. People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalised for a psychiatric illness.
Put simply, worrying is thinking about something, and anxiety is feeling it.
Worrying And Anxiety Have Beneficial Origins
Worry and anxiety are not all bad as they are developed for your protection. Both are really your brain’s way of learning from past experiences to try to steer you clear of potential dangerous situations in the future. Your brain’s number one priority is keeping you alive. When something bad happens, your thinking brain notes everything that preceded the event and tries to figure out patterns and connections within that occurrence and to past bad experiences that might have predicted it.
When remembering a deadly predator’s territory meant the difference between life or death, these traits were evolutionary advantages which greatly aided our species in thriving. But today when your brain can find hundreds of reasons every day to sound the alarm and connect things that don’t have any correlation, these circuits activate too frequently and can get stuck in the ‘on’ position causing serious negative results for your mental and physical health.
In the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb describes it like this:
Imagine you’re a baseball pitcher and you have a hat you always wear, and then one day you don’t wear the hat, and you lose the game and feel ashamed. Your limbic system wants to avoid that feeling in the future, so it notices, ‘Hey, I forgot to wear my hat. That must be the reason I lost.’ Even though not wearing your lucky hat probably didn’t cause the loss, once your limbic system assumes a possible connection, it becomes hard to unlearn it. From then on, not wearing the hat triggers anxiety.
While anxiety and fear activate the same stress response in your brain and body, triggering the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, they too are different. Fear is a reaction to actual danger, right here right now. Anxiety is concern over potential danger – unpredictable events which you probably don’t have control over.
Ways Out Of The Worry Trap
Worry is in your mind, remember? So, to reduce it, you have to learn to soothe and guide your thinking brain and calm its fear circuit. Some ways to do that are:
Become aware of your emotions
To decrease worry, you have to recognise when you’re doing it. Becoming aware of your emotional state as it occurs enlists your thinking frontal cortex and suppresses the fight or flight amygdala response. In one study, when participants simply labelled an emotion, their brains settled down.
Practice conscious breathing
Taking slow, deep breaths through your nose into your diaphragm with slow exhales turns down your nervous system reducing your body’s stress response. Slow, deep breathing stimulates the calming parasympathetic nervous system and sends your body and mind the message “I’m relaxed.”
Stay in the present
When you find your mind drifting to the past or future, come back to the right here and now. In this moment, you’re OK. It’s your thoughts creating a sense of danger. Bringing your awareness back into the now, a practice called mindfulness, calms the brain’s fearful amygdala and engages thinking neural circuits. Studies show that over time, practising mindfulness can lead to a lasting reduction of anxiety and worrying.
Focus on what you can control
Your brain craves control and feels happier and calmer when it perceives more control, even if it’s just an illusion. Feeling more in control has been shown to reduce anxiety, worry, and even physical pain. Avoid imagining the worst possible scenarios, and pay more attention to what is in your control, which modulates brain activity to reduce anxiety.
Research shows that around 85% of the time things turned out better than people feared, and they handled them better than they thought they would.
Make a decision – any decision
Simply making a decision about whatever it is that you’re worrying about invokes your thinking brain, increases dopamine levels, and shifts your brain’s perceptual focus to the things that matter the most. Making a decision also elevates your perceived control giving your confidence and mood a boost which helps propel you to act positively. Studies show that negative thinking and anxiety both decrease with decisiveness.
Go for ‘good enough’
Worrying is often triggered by imposing unrealistic or perfectionist expectations on yourself or others. Don’t aim for being the top performer at work. Just do your best and meet the goals. Your partner doesn’t have to do everything right. They just need to care about you and put honest effort into the relationship. You don’t have to have abs of steel. You just want to be healthy.
The ABCs of Anxiety
Anxiety can be understood by remembering “The ABC’s of Anxiety” according to Alex Korb which is also key to taming it:
You observe something that your brain thinks is worthy of sounding the alarm. The first step in decreasing anxiety is to become aware of it. Notice that your heart is racing or that your breathing has become shallow in the moment as it is happening. Consciously try to determine a causal link to an event or situation, past, present, or future, before your brain moves on to the next step.
You evaluate the alarm and make a belief about it. Beliefs are most often subconscious based on past programming, wounds, and experiences. Here’s your chance to interrupt the downward spiral of anxiety and automatic negative thinking patterns, like catastrophizing, black and white thinking, and assuming, and consciously work with your mind to reframe thoughts and insert new beliefs that empower and encourage you.
You respond to the belief. Coping can be a subconscious, non-productive habit, or a productive, conscious response, like going for a walk. It’s entirely possible to change coping skills from negative bad habits to healthier, more positive routines which will help to decrease the problem of anxiety in the first place. What really has to happen is you have to change the habits in your brain.