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Are you anxious or just worried? How to tell the difference

It’s important to know and recognise which is which

A woman sitting at a desk in an office rubs her neck
A woman sitting at a desk in an office rubs her neck

We all worry about things from time to time, and it’s natural to feel anxiety, to some extent, when life throws you a curve ball. Although many of us use the words ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably in everyday conversation – “I’m so anxious about this job interview” or “I’m so worried about this job interview”, for example – it’s important to know the two are different and to recognise which is which.

What’s the difference between anxiety and worry?

GP and The Wholesome Doctor Dr Preeya Alexander explains the worry vs anxiety distinction: “Anxiety tends to be more generalised; it can cause physical symptoms such as fidgeting, restlessness and sweating, and significant emotional distress,” she says.

“Where worry usually doesn’t affect one’s ability to perform at work or home, anxiety can. Anxiety tends to persist, and it can start to affect your ability to function – which makes it different to worry.”

What are the symptoms of anxiety vs worry?

While it’s natural to experience some worry, whether it’s about a big work presentation, a first date or an unpaid bill, when worry becomes persistent it can become anxiety and start affecting your health.

“Anxiety can have many effects on mental and physical wellbeing,” explains Preeya. “Some people struggle with sleep quality and fatigue, some develop abdominal symptoms such as pain or diarrhoea due to anxiety, and some struggle with panic attacks.”

If you have excessive worry or anxiety, you’re not alone. Beyond Blue reports that a quarter of Australians will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime. Some symptoms include:

  • Hot and cold flushes

  • A racing heart

  • Feeling edgy

  • Avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious, which can take a toll on your personal and professional life

“I always say that if your symptoms, whatever they are, are persistent and bothering you, it is always worth chatting to your doctor,” says Preeya.

A man sits cross-legged on the floor of his living room with his eyes shut as his dog sleeps on the couch behind him

How can I better manage anxiety and worry?

When you find yourself worrying or feeling anxious, try Preeya’s evidence-based techniques to quell your nerves and stress less:

Focus on regular physical activity

“You’d be surprised at how helpful this can be,” she says. “Aiming for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days won’t just help your physical health, it’s great for managing stress and anxiety too.”

Reduce your caffeine intake

“If you’re worried or anxious, then caffeine – and too much of it – can make it worse,” Preeya says. “Cutting down on caffeine can make a big difference.”

Be careful with alcohol

“When we’re worried or anxious, it can be easy to reach for a wine because it may temporarily relax you,” she says. “Alcohol has a negative impact on mental health and sleep quality though, so cutting back on alcohol intake may well help you manage anxiety.”

Give meditation a go

Meditation is not for everyone and it takes some practise, but it can really help a worried or anxious brain,” says Preeya. “There are lots of free apps that can help with this.”

Get enough sleep

“If you’re worried or anxious, sleep can be harder to come by and fatigue can perpetuate the anxiety further. Sleep is so crucial for the brain – I often prescribe my patients strict sleep hygiene rules to help,” she says.

When it comes to worry, anxiety and mental health, it’s important to know the difference and when to seek help.

If you have an urgent need for support with your mental health, contact one of the helplines below.

Lifeline: (24 hours) 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: (24 hours) 1800 55 1800

MensLine Australia: (24 hours) 1300 78 99 78

SANE Helpline: (mental illness information, support and referral) 1800 18 7263

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.