We often use the terms “worry,” “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Each has unique qualities and identifying which one is plaguing us will help us better address it. Registered psychologist Kristin Buhr, a director at the North Shore Stress & Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver and co-author of The Worry Workbook, breaks down the differences.
Worry is a negative thought you have about an uncertainty in life. Worries tend to focus on the assumption that something negative will come from future events or from the outcomes of occurrences that happened in the past.
Stress involves your reaction to pressures placed on you. You feel spread thin or are overwhelmed because life is demanding too much of your limited time, energy or some other personal resource. While worries are thoughts, stress is a feeling.
Anxiety is your mental and physiological response to a perceived threat. It’s like the body’s smoke detector—it senses danger and signals your body to rev up to deal with it. While worry takes place only in the mind, anxiety can have physical effects, like speeding up your heart rate. Worry can, however, trigger anxiety when your mind perceives imagined “what ifs” as real threats.
While worry, stress and anxiety are normal, intense and frequent anxiety can become a problem. You might have an anxiety disorder if, for instance, you have recurring sleep issues or you’re skipping out on your customary activities. Excessive anxiety can be focused on a fear of something specific, like social gatherings (known as social anxiety) or a host of experiences (known as generalized anxiety disorder).