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  • Mariam Daneshgar

Worry, Stress, & Anxiety: How To Differentiate Between The Three

It can be hard to know how one differs from the other - they all seem like bad things!

When it comes to the topic of stress, worry and anxiety, many people find it difficult to differentiate between the three. This is understandable, given that the three terms are often used interchangeably. This post will help you differentiate between these three different emotions by explaining what each entails and how to tell them apart.

Differentiating between stress, worry and anxiety can be difficult. We all experience them to some degree at different times in our lives (or even our day). However, it's important to understand that they are not the same thing. There are differences between stress, worry and anxiety because they are all different mental states. It’s simply a matter of learning to recognize them when they are happening. A better understanding of each state can help you define how you feel, and what you can do to manage it.

Here is brief summary of worry, stress, and anxiety and their hallmarks:


Worry is thoughts about something that might happen in the future and it’s negative possibilities. For example, if you were to say, “I’m worried about my exams tomorrow. I feel like I haven’t studied at all and what if the questions are really hard?” This is worry. It tends to be repetitive and cognitively-focused, meaning that it involves thinking about a problem in your mind. It also tends to be specific to a topic or a theme and related to a tangible problem, like your job, finances, school, etc. You generally know what you are worrying about and can describe your worries. Worrying can actually serve a purpose when it is done at the right dose. It helps predict possible issues in the future so that we can come up with a solutions in order to prevent or resolve the issue and move on.

When Does It Become a Problem?

Everybody worries to a certain level. However, when it is done excessively, it can be troublesome. You may find yourself locked in a loop where your thoughts are preoccupied with the problem but not the solution and you can’t move on. This can be very mentally taxing and can cause you to feel overwhelmed.


Stress is a physiological response to an issue, a situation, or an event where we perceive not having enough mental, emotional, or practical resources to handle them. This is when you feel it in your body. When under stress your brain and body is activated for a fight-or-flight response. You may find that your heartbeat has increased and you have sweaty palms. The cause is typically external and, in order to be stressed, there needs to be a ‘stressor’. For example, you may feel extremely stressed because you had to carry out an important presentation at work (stressor). Once you are done with the presentation, you feel much better and back to your normal self again. The response is typically short-term and meant to deal with the immediate ‘danger’ in front of you.

When Does It Become a Problem?

If the ‘stressor’ is continuous or frequent over a long period of time, this can lead to repeatedly feeling stressed and cause you to experience chronic stress. Being under this state for prolonged period can be overwhelming and can take a toll on the body (and the mind) because our bodies are designed to handle short-term stresses and to return to normal state in order to repair and to rest and to be ready for the next short-term stress. However, not having the chance to get this break can have adverse health and mental health effects.


Anxiety is feelings of apprehension, dread, and fear even if there isn’t an actual threat present. It is persistent in nature and could be focused on a specific topic or general and vague in nature. Typically it is the latter type that is confused with stress and worry. Anxiety is similar to worry and stress in that it has both features: the cognitive aspect (worrying) and the physiological responses (stress). However, anxiety is more than both of those and goes one step above them. The difference is that it does not go away even in the absence of a cause or threat. When it comes to the ‘worry’ aspect of anxiety, it tends to be vague and rooted in catastrophizing and over estimating risks of potential issues. The themes of the worries also mainly involve hypothetical situations. With regards to the physical responses in the anxiety, it is very similar to how your body reacts in a stressful situation (the fight-or-flight response). But the difference is that the responses may happen even when there is no external threat to react to. This may look like hyperventilation, sweaty palms, or increase in heart rate that show up out of nowhere.

When Does It Become a Problem?

Like worry and stress, anxiety also has its purpose. It has been our evolutionary mechanism for survival in times of threat by keeping our mind and body alert in order to do what we need to do to survive. However, when it is triggered and/or persists past its use, it can be counterproductive and actually impair daily functioning. In more severe cases it can be an anxiety disorders, which can be extremely debilitating and can cause you to feel mentally exhausted.

All three of these states can be present at once, or only one may be dominant depending on the individual and the situation. It is also normal (and useful) to experience each state at its appropriate time and at the right dose. However, too much of each can be debilitating and impact you and your life negatively.

When it comes to stress, worry and anxiety, it’s important to know the difference and to be able to properly identify each of these mental states, as they can go hand-in-hand. If you can recognize the signs of each, then you can take the necessary and effective steps to manage and control it. If these mental states are left unchecked, they can have a negative impact on your mental health and functioning. If stress, worry and anxiety are causing you distress, it’s time to seek professional to help you understand and manage these feelings so that you can live a healthier and happier life.

If you are struggling with stress, worry or anxiety, please don't hesitate to contact me for a free phone consultation. I will be happy to answer any questions.


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