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Is it worry, stress or anxiety?

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Is it Worry, Stress or Anxiety?

We all experience worry, stress or anxiety at least once on any given day.

But if you asked yourself which you were experiencing - worry, stress or anxiety - would you know the difference?

What is Worry?

Worry is what happens when your mind dwells on negative thoughts, uncertain outcomes or things that could go wrong.

Worry tends to be those repetitive, obsessive thoughts.

Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, USA described it as: “The cognitive component of anxiety.”

Simply put - worry happens in your mind, not in your body

How does worry work?

Worry does have an important function in our lives.

When we think about an uncertain or unpleasant situation - such as being unable to pay the rent, or doing badly in an exam - our brains become stimulated.

When we worry, it calms our brains down.

Worry is also likely to cause us to problem-solve or take action, both of which are positive things.

Worry is a way for your brain to handle problems in order to keep you safe

It’s only when we get stuck thinking about a problem that worry stops being useful.

Remember: Worry is helpful only if it leads to change - not if it turns into obsessive thoughts.

Top Tips to help with worry:

  • Give yourself a “worry window” - an amount of time in which you actually allow yourself to worry about a problem. When that time is up (start with 20 minutes), consciously redirect your thoughts.

  • When you notice that you’re worried about something, push yourself to come up with a next step or a solution-focused answer.

  • Write your worries down. Research has shown that just eight to 10 minutes of writing can help calm obsessive thoughts.

What is Stress?

Stress is a physiological response connected to an external event.

In order for the cycle of stress to begin, there must be a stressor. This is usually some kind of external circumstance, like a work deadline or a test.

The word ‘stress’ is defined as hardship, adversity, force, or pressure.

When our body is faced with it, whether from internal or external sources, a vital response process kicks in.

This is referred to as the fight-or-flight response.

Millennia ago, the likeliest threat a human being would encounter to spark this response would be the attack of a wild animal, someone screaming at you, or weeks without food.

It makes sense, then, that you’d need the strength to fight back or to run away fast.

When our body is in fight or flight mode, adrenaline and cortisol is released. The heart rate goes up and blood gets pumped to our limbs and away from our digestive and reproductive system.

Pupils dilate to help us see and the mind becomes hyper-vigilant. The blood sugar levels go up too.

In a healthy stress response, the cortisol level rises and falls quickly - as soon as the presumed threat is out of the way.

Chronic stress, is when your body stays in this fight-or-flight mode continuously (usually because the situation isn’t resolved, as with financial stressors or a challenging boss).

Chronic stress is linked to health concerns such as digestive issues, an increased risk of heart disease and a weakening of the immune system.

Remember: Stress is a biological response that is a normal part of our lives.

What is Anxiety?

If stress and worry are the symptoms, anxiety is the culmination.

Anxiety has a cognitive element (worry) and a physiological response (stress), which means that anxiety is experienced in both mind and body.

Remember how stress is a natural response to a threat?

Well, anxiety is the same thing... except there is no threat.

For example: you show up at work and somebody gives you an off look. You start to have all the physiology of a stress response because you’re telling yourself that your boss is upset with you, or that your job might be at risk. The blood is flowing, the adrenaline is pumping, your body is in a state of fight or flight - but there is no predator in the bushes.

  • Anxiety can be likened to a response to a false alarm

  • We experience anxiety in our body and our mind