DRMacIver's Notebook

Anxiety vs Worry

Anxiety vs Worry

Here is a distinction I've found useful recently: You are anxious about something if the emotion attaches to the uncertainty in the situation, you are worried about something if the emotion attaches to the possible outcomes.

NB that this doesn't perfectly track colloquial usage, but I think it works pretty well with it. Also if you're not sure how to tell what the emotion attaches to, may I recommend Focusing?

It's certainly possible to worry about things without being particularly anxious about them. Sensible precautions often work like this: e.g. I lock my door because I'm worried that if I don't people might otherwise come in and steal stuff, but there's no anxiety attached to that worry because it's just something I can act on to limit the chances.

You can be anxious without worry in situations when all of the potential outcomes are positive (it's also possible to mistake excitement for anxiety in these scenarios, but the anxiety can be real too). If one possible outcome

Anxiety and worry are far from mutually exclusive, and indeed tend to go hand in hand, but it is worth untangling the two conceptually, and even where both are present they are still different emotions.

For example, with COVID-19, I am worried about specific outcomes - harm to people in general, harm to people I love, overall negative societal effects, but am also also COVID-19 has more or less destroyed my ability to reason about the future, and that makes me anxious.

In the COVID-19 case the anxiety feels almost more like an existential feeling - there's not a specific thing I'm anxious about so much as a general sense that the unknown unknowns are dwarfing the known unknowns, let alone the known knowns (the unknown knowns remain huge given how ideological responses are being). The thing that is making me anxious is the uncertainty itself, not the bad outcomes possible.

Reducing worry is often more tractable than reducing anxiety, because you can reduce worry by planning. If you have a scenario you're worried about, you can ensure that you're prepared for it (e.g. COVID-19 precautions, or talking through your concerns about a situation with the people involved before you get into it). I like Chris Hadfield's advice for dealing with worry, which is "Figure out the next thing that's going to kill you" - plan for the worst, and convince yourself you can handle it. Also often what you're worrying about is outdated scenarios that no longer apply, so learning to debug that can help with this.

Anxiety can be resolved by reducing uncertainty by making the situation more deterministic, but often that's not a good idea! A certain amount of nondeterminism is often very useful, and many of the ways to reduce uncertainty do this by increasing the chances of failure (e.g. procrastination until it's too late to do a good job).

There are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Focus on any worries first, because often a lack of safety is the thing that makes uncertainty uncomfortable. Uncertainty isn't intrinsically bad, because if you're always certain you'll never learn anything.
  2. See if you can reframe any of the anxiety. For example, you can be uncertain about the outcome but certain of your ability to handle it. Can you focus on that? Are there good things about the uncertainty too? Can you appreciate those as excitement? (This one rarely to never works for me)
  3. If you've managed to get your anxiety down to a low enough level, it can be worth practicing a certain amount of discomfort tolerance. Anxiety isn't intrinsically bad, it may be telling you useful information about the world, so the correct amount of anxiety may be non-zero, and it's important to acknowledge that and be prepared to sit with it.
  4. If you've not managed to get your anxiety down to a low enough level, often me neither I'm afraid (I've got a lot better since I've acquired the "legacy code" tools). Consult someone with better advice than me and let me know what they said.