Are worry and anxiety the same thing?*

(*For mothers and other humans)

I became a worrier the day my husband and I brought our newborn home from the hospital.

I didn’t fret the same way in the hospital because, if there were an emergency, we were in the right place surrounded by the right people.

But once we were on our own…

“The afternoon Mike carried Matthew upstairs and laid him in his crib, and I looked at my child propped on his side between the crib pads and a rolled-up baby blanket—the recommended SIDS-prevention position at the time—I became a worrier. 

The awesome responsibility of motherhood and all its potential disasters hit. I worried if I left the room, Matthew would stop breathing. I worried he’d choke. When he started walking, he’d fall down the stairs, when he got his first bike, he’d fly over the handlebars, when he drove, he’d fall asleep behind the wheel.”

Excerpted from “Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived.”

The above is an excerpt from my memoir. Among the dozen or so people who have read all or part of the manuscript—critique partners, beta readers, editors, fellow memoirists—some have identified with my reaction to motherhood, but some have suggested it was excessive. Some referred to it as anxiety. 

It got me thinking—did I worry too much? Did I have anxiety? 

Last week, I reached out to other moms on Facebook and Twitter to ask, “Do you or did you worry excessively as a mom?” The answers ranged from “No, not really–my baby was healthy and strong,” to “Every second of every day.” Some moms said they were treated for anxiety and others said anxiety had already been a part of their lives before they had children.

I decided to dig into my own experience, the collective experience of other mothers, and what it all means. 

Here’s what I learned about the difference between worry and anxiety:

All anxiety involves worrying but not all worrying becomes anxiety. Click To Tweet

Anxiety has three components: emotional, cognitive, and physiological.

Emotional: Fear is often the emotion accompanying anxiety.

When I looked at my newborn lying in his crib, I feared something bad would happen to him.

“Fear” is frequently used interchangeably with “worried” and “anxious.” We say, “I feel anxious” about a big test, a job interview, an awkward conversation. New parents feel anxious about the huge responsibility for another life. The emotion is rooted in real danger or threat—failing the test, blowing the interview, losing a friendship, screwing up the most important job in the world. 

(We also often use “anxiety” and “anxious” interchangeably, but there’s a difference. Read on.)

Cognitive: Thoughts go hand-in-hand with our emotions.

I had thoughts such as: “I’m now responsible for this human being and his life and I can’t let anything bad happen to him and it would be horrible if Matthew got hurt or sick or died.”

Physiological: Physical symptoms are an indication of anxiety. Heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and tightness in the stomach are common, but there are many other symptoms as well.

Physical symptoms must be present for your condition to be considered true anxiety.

I did not have any physical symptoms accompanying my worry. For the most part, my emotions and thoughts flew around in my head like autumn leaves in a windstorm, but that’s all it was. Therefore, I have learned, I did not have clinical anxiety.

Worry becomes anxiety when physical symptoms are involved. If you have no physical symptoms, you do not have clinical anxiety. Click To Tweet

However…

What if your physical symptoms are minor or fleeting? 

Sometimes, when I worry, my heart pounds unusually hard, my voice gets wobbly, my throat thickens with phlegm. Is that anxiety? 

I didn’t know. So I dug deeper.

Anxiety, as I mentioned above, is a combination of emotions, thoughts, and physical symptoms. Here’s a great definition:

“Anxiety is a multisystem response to a perceived threat or danger. It reflects a combination of biochemical  changes in the body, the patient’s personal history and memory, and the social situation.”

Anxiety occurs on a continuum from mild to severe.

Mild anxiety

Most people experience mild anxiety from time to time. Slight jitters, a dry mouth, or excess sweating often accompany life stressors. We manage the symptoms, we survive the situation, and the anxiety subsides.

Here are three tips to manage low-level anxiety:

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff! If you have no physical symptoms, or minor fleeting ones, and if your thoughts and emotions don’t bother you and are not concerning to friends and loved ones, accept worrying and mild anxiety as a normal part of life.
  • Redirect your thoughts. When you find yourself being sucked into that worrisome hole, intentionally redirect your thoughts elsewhere. My go to distraction: outwitting the deer that destroy my gardens–it sucks up loads of mental energy!
  • Set a time limit. Give yourself a limited period of time to worry your little heart out. When the time is up, move your mind on to other areas and/or get physically active, a great way to focus on your body and not your thoughts.

Here are additional tips to manage worrying.

Severe Anxiety

At the other end of the continuum, anxiety becomes ever-present and debilitating. Even with no real threat, the emotions, thoughts, and physical symptoms make daily functioning impossible.

Moms I engaged with described not wanting to let responsible family members take their baby for a walk, not wanting to take their child anywhere in the car, even not wanting to have a heavy object in the same room as their baby for fear the object would fall on her.

Panic attacks—sudden and severe episodes of anxiety—also occur in the “concerning” end of the continuum.

Those who suffer these extreme symptoms—approximately 1 in 5 Americans—usually need professional help and may be diagnosed with one of several anxiety disorders.

Whether you have young children, adult children, or no children at all, if these symptoms ring true for you, please seek professional help. There is no need to suffer in silence.

Parenting worry and anxiety: You are not alone.

Whatever your experience of worry and anxiety in motherhood and parenting, know that you are not alone. In the modern history of our species, I guarantee thousands if not millions of others have felt your pain. One of them may be reading this at this very moment.

I’m comforted to know I have company, to have my experience validated by others. My sons are now 30 and 35, and I worry less than I did when they were babies, but I’ll never stop completely, a sentiment shared by many other moms. 

And, some women who are grandparents said the fretting gets worse with the arrival of grandbabies and a second generation of offspring to worry about!

All the more reason to understand what makes us tick and learn how to tune down our unhealthy and unhelpful responses to life stressors. All the more reason to seek help if we are not managing the stressors well. All the more reason to celebrate happy moments with our children and loved ones. 

Parenting is never easy. Hopefully, I’ve allayed some of your worries about your worrying. If not, let me know in the comments how I can help.

Author

  • An emerging writer in upstate, NY, Karen DeBonis tells her story on her website, in publications like the NY Times, (a Tiny Love Story), in her “Become Emboldened” projects, and elsewhere. "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" is Karen’s transformational memoir about the clash between her naive expectations of motherhood and her son's needs, which destroys her confidence and threatened her stability (Available for representation.)

4 Comments

  1. Nancy Brier on October 13, 2021 at 7:28 AM

    I have an odd relationship with worry and anxiety. Having grown up with six siblings, chaos was normal , and lots of near misses, pranks, and mostly minor accidents gave me a pretty thick skin. But you are so right. Having a baby changed everything. I think it’s useful to parse the difference between worry and anxiety, and I appreciate your post.

    • Karen DeBonis on October 13, 2021 at 7:45 AM

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy. I grew up with five siblings! But my skin remained thin, lol. I think it’s the nature vs nurture argument–and in my case, my personality, especially as a mother, made me extra sensitive to “what-ifs.” I’m glad you found this post helpful.

  2. deb palmer on October 13, 2021 at 11:17 AM

    I loved thinking about the difference between worry and anxiety. Thank you for this post. I have received much healing for anxiety over the years, one layer at a time. I’m grateful that I no longer suffer from severe anxiety but still recognize I have anxious tendencies.
    Again, thanks for your insight.

    • Karen DeBonis on October 13, 2021 at 1:43 PM

      I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, Deb. I’m glad you received help and found healing for your anxiety. For me, although I didn’t have true, clinical anxiety, I recognize my tendency to worry (not just about my kids- my husband, too!), knowing I have strategies to keep it manageable. Keep peeling back those layers!

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