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Am I anxious, worried or both? Is there a difference and what do I do about it?

It’s normal to have worries as everyone has them from time to time. During a time such as this, new worries or an increase in worry is all too normal! Worry only becomes a problem when it gets in the way of your everyday functioning and wellbeing (when this happens, your worry has transformed into anxiety but we’ll get to that later).

Some things you may find yourself worrying about at the moment may include the impact of COVID-19 on your education or job, the possibility of someone getting sick or whether you have enough money to buy groceries next month – just to name a few. Adolescents may worry about the school year, which includes high expectations and pressure to succeed during this challenging time. Younger children may worry about not being able to see their friends or grandparents and whether all the bunnies in the park can get sick too.

The main difference between worry and anxiety is that worry tends to be more focused on thoughts in our heads, while anxiety is more intuitive and non-rational, in that we feel it throughout our bodies. When we worry, our thoughts are caused by realistic and specific concerns which can be resolved through problem-solving. For example, “I’m going to fail my physics test” (identify the problem), “so I need to find a tutor to help me” (solution). Worry is caused by external causes such as financial trouble, relationship problems, getting an F in math, job loss, fight with a friend, etc. and usually fades or lessens after the external concern has subsided or the problem has been resolved.

On the other hand, when we are experiencing anxiety, our thoughts can be irrational or vague. Anxiety has three main components: emotional, physiological, and cognitive. In small doses, anxiety is helpful. It protects us from danger (initiates fight or flight responses) and focuses our attention on problems but when anxiety is too severe or occurs too frequently, it can become debilitating (it weakens us). Anxiety has an internal origin and is a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread in non-threatening situations. For example, you have to give a presentation to the whole class and you are feeling intense feelings of dread and fear (emotional). Your heart starts to race, your hands sweat and you have a sick feeling in your stomach as you wonder if you are going collapse to the floor any second now (physiological). While you stand there, fearful and shaking, you start to think that there is no way you can do this and you would rather just fail than share your presentation with everyone (cognitive). As previously mentioned, small doses of anxiety can be good and can be considered normal. To feel anxious and experience these reactions when you present something for the first time is expected, however, these reactions and feelings should subsidise with experience and practice. If you experience this every single time you need to present something to your peers – then you are possibly dealing with a case of anxiety.

Chronic worry in children (and adults) can interfere with school, learning and relationships and has the potential to lead to anxiety and other mental health problems such as depression, substance abuse and suicide. It is therefore important to identify your worries and take charge of them before they take charge of you! Here are some activities which can be helpful when you find yourself overwhelmed and worried.

1. Relax and breathe. Relaxation methods and activities such as focused, deep breathing. Try breathing in for 4 counts and breathing out for 4 counts for 5 minutes total. By evening out your breath, you’ll slow your heart rate which should help calm you down.

2. Do something you enjoy. Plan short-term activities that are enjoyable or distracting. Go watch an episode of Friends or your favourite cooking show. Go for a drive around the block and get a cup of your favourite coffee or plan an afternoon of gardening or painting pottery.

3. Get active! Exercise is helpful in managing worry, as exercising releases brain chemical that counteract anxiety and low mood. It also gives time away from worries, and works off “nervous energy.”

4. Write it down and problem solve. Use structured problem solving to deal with stressors that may contribute to worry. It may even help to write down your thoughts. Writing down what’s making you anxious gets it out of your head and can make it less daunting. It will also serve as a great starting point for the problem-solving process.

5. Mindfulness. Try mindfulness apps. There are those that will help you exercise mindfulness. Here’s a list of apps that you can try:

Stop, Breathe, and Think: it allows teens to name their feelings and determine their emotions. Then, they have guided meditations. The app also teaches emotional intelligence.

Smiling Mind: this app is developed with the help of psychologists and experts in meditation in order to allow its users, especially teens, to have a balanced life.

Headspace: “Meditation made simple”. Teens and adults can try this and start with simple processes on how to meditate.

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