The 4 Differences Between Worry And Obsession (explained)

Differences between worry and obsession (explained)

Have you been worried about anything lately? You probably answered yes, and it is totally normal. You shouldn’t worry, at least for now.

Worries are a relatively normal cognitive process in the population, but depending on their occurrence and the topic they relate to, they can evolve into other less healthy and uncontrollable processes such as obsessions.

In today’s article Let’s compare the differences between worry and obsession reviewing what these cognitive processes entail within GAD and OCD.

How to differentiate between worries and obsessions?

Before reading anything, reflect for a moment and try to answer the following question: Have you worried for any reason throughout the day? And the week? And in the last month? You’ve probably found more than one topic that you’ve been thinking about for at least the last week. This is totally normal, you should not worry for now (“meta worry” I would call it), although it is true that If you think too much about what issues, perhaps you should consider looking for a solution

Be that as it may, the truth is that almost 40% of the population worries at least once a day. However, many times what is understood by concern in popular ears is blurred by another idea that, even if a little distant, is similar: obsession. What do we understand by concern and what by obsession? To what extent are both cognitive processes different? The truth is that we can identify many significant differences between them and, in fact, each one takes special prominence in two disorders: GAD and OCD

To assess their differences, let’s start by seeing what their definitions are.

What is a concern?

We can define a concern as a chain of thoughts focusing on future danger or misfortune, in which there is uncertainty about the results and events that may occur in the short, medium or long term. In this cognitive process, the future threat is interpreted as unpredictable and uncontrollable to a greater or lesser extent, which causes it to bring with it a certain degree of anxiety, although depending on how intense the worry is, this emotion will be more or less bearable.

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The theme of concerns, manifested in the form of thoughts and/or images, focuses on everyday situations of daily life and they can be understood as a first attempt to solve a problem that is seen as a threat or perceived as dangerous, rehearsing in the mind what the person should do to be able to face it.

Although they occupy part of our attention, as a general rule worries do not interfere with carrying out daily activities and responsibilities, they are easy to control. They cause a little discomfort, but this is bearable and they do not cause deterioration in important areas of the person’s functioning, at least if they do not occur to a too intense degree. If this is the case, we would speak of excessive worries.

Obsessions

Excessive worry and GAD

As we have seen, everyone has worries throughout the day. However, these can increase in intensity, become excessive and be accompanied by very high levels of anxiety, traits that are part of the core components of generalized anxiety disorder or GAD. These types of concerns share traits with the “normal” ones, only here they occur more intensely

As a general rule, worries, both normal and pathological, are egosyntonic, that is, they occur in line with the person’s own values. They are accompanied by symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, going blank, irritability, muscle tension, and there may also be sleep disturbances, although these symptoms are more typical of excessive worries than ordinary ones.

Contextualizing them within the TAG, we can say that the concerns can become a very problematic symptom, especially because they contribute to patients developing very rigid beliefs about the advantages of worrying. You could say that it becomes their coping method for the fears that they believe will come true in the future, even though the worries themselves become what causes anxiety and psychological discomfort.

The content, that is, the topic of the concerns, both normal and those of people with GAD, do not differ too much. They can focus on all kinds of important aspects in the patient’s life, such as health, friends, family, work, school, finances, and other everyday aspects.

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The only difference in this sense would be that patients with GAD worry about more things, doing so more frequently, for a longer duration, and with a lower degree of control. In its pathological aspect, worries are associated with hypervigilance and low tolerance for uncertainty.

What is an obsession?

An obsession is a recurrent and persistent thought, image or impulse that is experienced in an especially intrusive way and seen as highly inappropriate They are egodystonic, that is, they go against the person’s values, causing a high degree of discomfort and anxiety. These types of cognitive processes can take over the patient’s thinking, causing them to spend most of the day thinking about the content of their obsessions and, in most cases, they are accompanied by compulsions aimed at reducing the associated anxiety.

Obsessions are key symptoms within obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD. Although not all people who have obsessions have this disorder, in fact, it is common that at some point in our lives we go through a phase in which we become obsessed with something, it is true that If they occupy most of our daily lives, they represent a problem, directly relating it to OCD

The DSM-5 describes the obsessions of OCD as intrusive, irrational and recurring thoughts, impulses or images that cause the patient a high degree of anxiety, fear and discomfort. These are accompanied by compulsions, understood as behaviors or mental acts of a repetitive nature that the person feels obliged to carry out in response to the obsession, as a way of controlling the latter. Both symptoms cause a high degree of affectation in the patient, causing them to waste time and interfering with their daily routine.

Some examples of obsessions and compulsions (for example, fear of getting infected and repeatedly washing your hands); need to have everything correctly organized to feel calm; exaggerated awareness of bodily sensations such as the wrinkles of clothes on the skin and the need to have everything well ironed… These and other obsessions and compulsions can be perfectly recognized by the patient as irrational, although he will continue to carry them out.

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Main differences between a worry and an obsession

Having seen the definitions between worry and obsession, we can review the main differences between both psychological phenomena.

1. Egostune and egodystonia

Worries, both normal and excessive, are egosyntonic, which means that they are consistent with the person’s values. They are not seen as irrational or contrary to common sense (e.g., worrying about failing the course).

On the other hand, obsessions are egodystonic, seen as contrary to the person’s values. The person affected may consider that constantly worrying about a certain aspect of his life is getting him nowhere and that, in fact, he is not like that nor does he want to be, but he cannot help it.

2. Relationship with life problems

Worries are directly related to plausible problems in daily life (e.g., making ends meet, having a cavity, your car breaking down…), while The obsessions may either be related to the patient’s life or not with very far-fetched ideas about supposed problems in his life (e.g., having an accident because he didn’t put his books in order…).

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3. Acceptability

Worries, at least normal ones, are perceived as acceptable, in the sense that they come to mind and then go away They are there like any other recurring thought that may come to us, only in this case it is about something that we think could go wrong.

In the case of obsessions, their content is unacceptable, meaning that they cause great discomfort in the individual and when they appear it seems that they do not want to leave. The patient has to do compulsions to get rid of both the obsession and the anxiety that it causes momentarily.

  • Related article: “What is anxiety: how to recognize it and what to do”

4. Frequency of appearance

Concerns occur in a moderate daily number and have realistic content In the case of excessive worries, we could say that they are presented in a broader way, being less realistic. On the other hand, obsessions revolve around a specific content, they change and their appearance throughout the day is much more frequent, occupying the mind in such a way that the subject cannot do other things.