The Different Shades of Anxiety

Different Colors And Shades Of ConcealerWorry manifests in a number of different ways.  In fact, the way people worry is likely as diverse as people themselves. However, I believe there are three broad categories of worry people engage in: social, obsessive, and general.

Yes, there are multiple variations and permutations of these categories.  My goal is not to reduce the complex phenomenon of worry into an overly simplistic concept, but rather highlight how it may be helpful to view worry from a broader perspective.  If you are able to approach the concept from the 30-000 foot view it will be easier to understand the individual variations of your clients.

Social Worry

A lot of people are uncomfortable in social settings.  For some, it manifests as shyness when out with friends at a club or bar, with family at a party, or out at dinner with work colleagues.  The fear of saying something wrong or upsetting someone without meaning to plagues others.

Basically, socially anxious people tend to worry that they will be negatively judged by others in some way.  And as a result, they tend to avoid social situations for fear of being embarrassed, ridiculed or shamed (even though it’s unlikely this will happen).

The emotional effects of social worry are not the only effects these individuals experience.  They also suffer a number of physical symptoms.  Some of the more common ones include:

  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Racing heart
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Quivering voice
  • Trembling

What types of things do socially anxious people worry about?  Well, it’s limitless. It could be any number of things.  But, in my experience, some of the more common ones include:

  • Starting a conversation
  • Being rejected by friends, family or strangers
  • Talking or giving a speech in public
  • Meeting new people
  • Entering a room when people are already there (they often like to be the first at the party)
  • Making eye contact with a stranger

As you are well aware, unless these issues cause significant distress for the individual and interfere with daily functioning, the symptoms do not reach the level of “disorder.”  But when they do, it is apparent and often labeled as social phobia or a related disorder. Specific examples of the type of life disruption typically seen include:

  • Starting a conversation- A single, intelligent, and attractive man in his thirties has not been on a date in three years. He has had several opportunities just in the past month to ask a woman on a date who was interested in him.  His fear of talking to a stranger prevented him from doing so.
  • Rejection- A successful business woman has been unhappy with her job for the last few years. She would like to leave, but has avoided going on job interviews because of her fear that she will be turned down.
  • Public speaking- A nurse was recently promoted to an administrative position. One of her new responsibilities is to lead a daily information meeting each morning for the nursing staff.  She has decided to resign because of  her nervousness about speaking in front of the staff.
  • Meeting new people- A woman in her early fifties recently divorced from her husband of 30 years. She would like to begin dating again.  She doesn’t because she is afraid the men she meets will think something is wrong with her because she’s divorced.
  • Entering a room with seated people- An attractive young woman avoids going to restaurants because she is worried about being judged by those already in the room.
  • Making eye contact- A college student avoids leaving her dorm room because she is afraid that she will unintentionally offend someone by staring at them.

Obsessive Worry

Obsessions are persistent thoughts, images or impulses that cause distress for the individual having them.  They are unwanted and seem to be uncontrollable by the person. In some cases, the obsessive worrier may engage in compulsive behaviors (checking/re-checking, hand washing, arranging/rearranging items) to reduce the anxiety.

These behaviors work to varying degrees, but do not eliminate the anxious thoughts.  In essence, what they do is temporarily relieve the anxiety.  Because they work in the short-term they are highly reinforcing and hard to extinguish.  As you might expect, this type of worry is typically labeled as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  But, not all cases reach the level of disorder and people must learn to manage these different symptoms as part of their everyday life.

The focus of the obsessive worry varies from person to person.  But, the most common themes include:

  • Contamination/filth
  • Orderliness/Neatness/Sequencing
  • Safety/Harm
  • Aggressive, sexual or religious thoughts or impulses

As with social worry, obsessive worry is only problematic when the thoughts interfere with normal life. Examples include:

  • Contamination/Filth-A woman obsesses about catching an illness from door handles, which causes her to no longer leave the house.
  • Orderliness/Neatness/Sequencing-A man worries constantly about his tie being crooked, so much that he goes to the bathroom a few dozen times each day to check himself in the mirror. This behavior has caused him to get behind on several projects at work.
  • Safety/Harm-A father is consumed with thoughts about something bad happening to his children if he drives even one mile an hour over the speed limit. He dreads driving to and from work.
  • Aggressive, sexual or religious thoughts or impulses-A Sunday school teacher has stopped going to church because of  uncontrollable thoughts and images she has of herself engaging in sexual activity with the church’s pastor.


The Different Shades of Anxiety

Bret Moore, Psy.D.

Dr. Moore is a board-certified clinical psychologist and prescribing psychologist in San Antonio, TX. His recent book Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress, and Fear was developed as a self-help guide for people struggling with anxiety and for therapists to use with their patients. Dr. Moore is also coauthor of the Handbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for Therapists-Ninth Edition and Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology Made Simple-Fourth Edition.


APA Reference
Moore, B. (2016). The Different Shades of Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Jun 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jun 2016
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