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Healthy Living

Stress vs. Anxiety vs. Worry: What’s the Difference?

May 17 2021
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You may think that stress, anxiety and worry are all the same thing. However, there are actually differences between them.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to brush up on your knowledge and learn what these three terms actually mean.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the umbrella term. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the country. It affects 40 million adults in the United States, or 18.1% of the population every year.

Anxiety is your body’s natural threat response to stress and worry. It has three parts to it:

  • Physical: Bodily sensations from stress
  • Cognitive: Worrying thoughts
  • Emotional: Behaviors brought on by worrying thoughts

When all three parts gang up together, they create that overwhelming swirl of anxiety.

Now, it helps to know what the differences are between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. Feeling anxious can be an ordinary part of daily life. Maybe you feel anxious because you think your coworker may be mad at you. Or, you may be anxious about a speech you need to give or a long drive you need to take.

The positive side of anxiety is that it can make you prepare better for your speech and drive more cautiously on your trip. However, an anxiety disorder is a medical condition that can severely affect your daily life.

Anxiety disorder symptoms

People with an anxiety disorder experience specific chronic emotional and physical symptoms, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Skin rashes
  • Stomach upsets
  • Expecting danger
  • Feelings of dread
  • Shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure
  • Pounding/racing heart
  • Inability to concentrate

These symptoms can appear in the many different types of anxiety disorders. Here are the four most common types:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Chronic worrying about daily life
  • Social anxiety disorder: Fear and worry about being around other people
  • Panic disorder: Sudden feelings of terror that bring on severe physical symptoms
  • Phobias: Avoiding things or situations that trigger strong reactions of fear in us

What is stress?

You can experience two types of stress: good and bad.

Bad stress can create all kinds of physical problems, as you can see in the list of symptoms for anxiety disorders, especially if you have chronic stress in your life. Examples of bad stress include:

  • Divorce
  • Legal issues
  • Injury or illness
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Death of a loved one
  • Work and colleague conflicts

Good stress differs. Stress can be exciting. It could help you improve performance and make you feel alive.  Some good sources of stress include:

  • Marriage
  • Vacation
  • Retirement
  • Getting a raise
  • Playing sports
  • A job promotion
  • Becoming a parent
  • Moving to a new home

What is worry?

All those negative thoughts about these stressors that you have will fall under the category of worries. Those worries, which can be tough to control, can also make you behave in not-so-great ways.

Worry makes up the emotional and cognitive parts of anxiety. If you are worrying excessively most days over a six-month period and have physical symptoms, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Sometimes good worry helps you handle problems. The good type of worry, such as wondering how you are going to pay bills or fix a challenging situation, can focus us. Worrying thoughts may urge us to problem-solve. In turn, taking action on your problems reduces worrying thoughts.

It’s also possible to have temporary bad stress and worry that never grows into bad anxiety. If you feel some stress or worry, you can take control and try to reduce symptoms so they don’t grow into an anxiety disorder.

For example, to fight stress, get moving, even if it’s a short walk or five minutes of jumping rope to release the adrenaline. Then, write down all your worries into a “brain dump” to relieve your mind of nagging problems. Once it’s written down, you can see clearly how to resolve them.

Bottom line, the easiest way to remember it is this: stress + worry = anxiety. Hopefully this information has helped you untangle these three terms and shown you how they work together.

Still have questions? Learn more about the behavioral and mental health services we offer at Bon Secours.


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