The Differences Between Stress, Worry & Anxiety

People use the words stress, worry and anxiety interchangeably in everyday conversation. As a licensed therapist, however, I find it helpful to know they do actually mean different things.

What Does It Mean to Worry?

Part of the human condition, worry is a natural process that happens in the higher part of the brain. It’s an active cognitive process of thinking and imagining. You can think of it as the “what if” part of our brains.

Worry isn’t always negative, though people tend to position it as such. It’s worry that can help us take precautions that keep us safe. Excessive worry, on the other hand, refers to thinking we can’t shut off. It’s the hamster wheel of never-ending “what if’s.” This kind of worry can actually cause physical symptoms and can interfere with your functioning. When it doesn’t lead to problem-solving, seeking help may be a good idea.

What Causes Stress?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress this way:

Stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of homework or having an illness. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time.

Note the cause is external. Who among us can’t say we’ve been stressed at some point? We all can.

Much like worry, we tend to use the word “stress” in the negative. A stressor can be neutral or even positive, like planning a wedding. Sometimes stress motivates. The stress of doing well on a project, for example, can push us to work harder.

Stress is dose-dependent (much like anxiety, which we’ll get to in a minute). This means its influence depends on balance. For instance, for me, I function at my best when I’ve reached my personal sweet spot of having juuuuuust enough stressors to push my performance but not too many that I feel overwhelmed. This refers to the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This says we perform best with the right amount of stress. If you have too little, you can’t get going, and, if you have too much, the system shuts down. It’s generally applied to performance and stress. 

When I don’t have enough to do, I don’t function as well (too much time for my mind to wander), and when I have too much to do, my attention to any one thing suffers. When we’re out of our sweet spot, we need to stop and reevaluate. Our success depends on our mindset.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal, healthy — even helpful — emotion.

You’d never know that by how it’s positioned.

We tend to think of anxiety as bad, something to avoid. Generally, people refer to anxiety as the physical sensations triggered by your brain’s amygdala. Anxiety is your body’s alarm system, and its job is to be on alert for danger. When all systems are firing normally, the alarm doesn’t go off very often, but when it does, the feelings, sensations and experience pass well within an hour or so. It’s our reaction to an external stressor. It’s the fear, the dread that something bad is going to happen.

When all systems aren’t firing normally, it goes off even when there’s no real danger. We say your internal alarm is stuck. This is when we may want to seek professional help. A trained therapist can teach you skills that help you better respond to that alarm. Therapy may not be what you think, either. There are many different types, so finding someone skilled in anxiety recovery is essential.