Ask the Expert: The Difference Between Worry and Anxiety

Lynn Northrop, PhD, a clinical psychologist affiliated with Sharp HealthCare, answers frequently asked questions about anxiety and worrying.

What is the difference between worry and anxiety?
The difference between everyday worry and anxiety and clinical anxiety is it's basically a matter of degree in part. Everybody worries. But if that worry or anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to function, if it's leading to things like avoidance of tasks or people or places that you need to engage with, then that would be a time to seek help and starting with your primary care provider is always wise. 

Do seniors worry more than younger people?
I would say that seniors worry about the same amount as people of any age. Seniors may worry about different things than do younger people.

Is it OK to worry? 
It depends on whether that worry is productive, or whether it's what we call "toxic worry."

What is productive worry?
Productive worry leads to problem solving. You identified something that you're worried about like, "Gosh, I have this pain in my arm. I wonder if it means anything significant." Productive worry would lead you to maybe talk to your doctor about that or think about whether you engaged in some activity that causes that pain in your arm.

What about toxic worry?
Toxic worry involves only allowing yourself to think about the worry very briefly. You approach the worry just enough so that it causes a physiological reaction in your body. Maybe your heart rate goes up or you have butterflies in your tummy and then you back right away because it's scary to think about that thing that you're worried about. Toxic worriers tend to worry about a lot of different things, all the while causing themselves physiological distress and never allowing them to get close enough to the thing that they worry about to engage in problem solving and actually taking care of the thing that they're worried about. 

One of the common behaviors that accompanies worry and anxiety is avoidance. The more you avoid, the more worried you become. The more worried you become, the more you avoid. You can get into this cycle that can really cause big problems in the long run.

What are common anxiety disorders and what are the symptoms?
Probably the most common anxiety disorder among older adults is what we call "generalized anxiety disorder." People with generalized anxiety disorder are going to report physical symptoms like periods of increased heart rate or shortness of breath or stomach upset, butterflies in their stomach, gastrointestinal distress.

When should I get help?
If you are anxious to the point where it's interfering with your quality of life or getting in the way of your ability to get things done, then that means it's time to ask for help.

If you would like more information about aging and anxiety or if you are an older adult with anxiety, or you have a loved one who you think may need treatment for anxiety, you can call 1-800-82-SHARP and they can help you find a primary care provider who can help you with these things.

For More Information
To learn more about Sharp's senior health services or to find a Sharp-affiliated physician, search for San Diego doctors or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm. To find general information about senior health, read the Senior Health News archive.