Anxiety and Overthinking: What’s the Difference?

May 3, 2018 • Rehack Team


Generalized anxiety disorder afflicts 3.1 percent of people in the U.S., or approximately 6.8 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. If you’ve been diagnosed with the affliction or know someone who has, you’ve probably experienced its unpleasant effects to a certain extent. Anxiety can paralyze those affected, especially when they can’t calm their racing thoughts.

But anxiety and overthinking aren’t the same things. They bear subtle, but important, distinctions. So what, exactly, is the difference?

True Anxiety vs. Overthinking

While overthinking a situation can cause stress and unnecessary worry, it’s part of most typical people’s thought processes at one point or another. In contrast, anxiety is a psychiatric disorder that can derail a person’s daily life by plaguing them with persistent worries. Anxiety and overthinking differ in that, while you may be able to talk yourself out of overthinking, anxiety doesn’t necessarily stem from any logical source. It just occurs.

What’s more, anxiety bears a stigma overthinking does not. Mental health issues, in general, tend to make those who encounter them leery because people tend to misunderstand them. But since anxiety is the most common mental health woe, it’s important to remember there’s no shame in suffering from it — or any other mental health disorder, for that matter.

Symptoms of Anxiety

There’s an entire laundry list of symptoms associated with anxiety, further proof that it’s a bit more complicated than overthinking. Though anxiety manifests differently in each individual, its characteristics often include an onslaught of worries that won’t relent, regardless of the validity of those worries. Anxiety could lead to difficulty relaxing, concentrating or even sleeping. Of course, a constant struggle with anxiety might also make you irritable, edgy and tired.

What’s more, anxiety often manifests in physical ways. At its most severe, anxiety can trigger headaches, stomachaches or muscle pain. It might make you feel lightheaded or short of breath, particularly if you’re experiencing a panic attack. You may sweat more or have to run to the bathroom more frequently. Typically, you won’t experience these types of symptoms when you’re overthinking something.

How to Avoid Anxiety

Leading presentations, studying for upcoming exams, and job interviews, to mention a few – can act as triggers for people who suffer from anxiety. However, coping with constant anxiety happens in a variety of ways. There are healthy, helpful approaches, and then not-so-helpful methods. For instance, some people subconsciously turn to food for comfort when they feel overwhelmed by repetitive thoughts, but this rarely helps. In fact, it might cause you to spiral even further into a pit of anxiety. Instead, enlist a productive mechanism to avoid anxiety.

1. Exercise

Exercise tends to ease the sting of anxiety by releasing endorphins in the body, which promote a feeling of happiness and calm. Expending physical energy can also help stop a percolating panic attack dead in its tracks.

2. Fermented Foods

Recent research points to nutrition as a means of managing anxiety, as well. One study found more fermented foods equal less anxiety. It probably has something to do with the probiotics, or healthy bacteria, in fermented foods. These create a better environment in the gut, which has been linked to improved mental and emotional health.

3. Prebiotics

Taking a prebiotic supplement may help, too, say scientists. Prebiotics are essentially fuel for probiotic bacteria, so it makes sense increasing your intake would also help ease your anxiety.

4. Goal-Setting

If you find yourself consistently settling into behavior that’s comfortable, but not necessarily beneficial — e.g., hiding at home when you feel stressed — set small goals to break the cycle. For example, commit to spending an hour or two at a coffee shop while you work or study to get out of the house and interact with people socially.

5. Meditation

Since anxiety tends to develop when you can’t stop your racing thoughts, it makes sense meditation would help. Meditation teaches practitioners to slow down and find an inner sense of calm, which may help offset any impending panic.

Although everyone overthinks things from time to time, anxiety only afflicts certain individuals. But given the number of people affected, it’s still an important topic to discuss without judgment or any preconceived notions. Be the person to start this conversation with your loved ones, especially if you or any of them struggle with anxiety.