Worry vs Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference

Published on: 14 Jul 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between worry and anxiety. If you’ve ever felt worried sick and wondered if you have anxiety, that’s completely normal. Especially considering that worry really is an aspect of anxiety. That said, it’s important to understand that just because you worry, doesn’t automatically mean you have anxiety. 

While many people these days use the two words interchangeably, worry and anxiety are actually quite different from one another. Part of that difference includes how each affects our mental and physical well-being. 

One of the fundamental differences between them is that worry is usually fleeting and temporary, while anxiety, which affects an estimated 40 million people in the United States, can be persistent and affect your entire body. 

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between anxiety and worry. 

Defining Anxiety

Anxiety is an uncontrollable feeling of unease or nervousness, often about an unfamiliar setting or an event with an unknown outcome.

Anxiety symptoms can include any or all of the following:

  • Feeling nervous or restless
  • Sense of impending and imminent doom
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Feeling weak
  • Finding it hard to sleep
  • Gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea, nausea, or lack of appetite

Several types of anxiety disorders exist, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is characterized by a constant feeling of dread or anxiety, often with little or nothing to provoke it.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Often thought of as something only present in children, adults can be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, too. People with separation anxiety disorder are afraid of being apart from the people they care about. They are frequently concerned that something bad may happen to their loved ones when they are apart. As a result of this dread, they resist being separated from their attachment figures.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is characterized by unwavering fear or anxiety of social situations. They constantly are thinking about what others might think of them, often putting untrue beliefs in their own minds. 
  • Panic disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by repeated and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an abrupt bout of intense fear, discomfort, or a sense of losing control. It’s important to note that not everyone who has a panic attack has panic disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is characterized by recurring, unwanted thoughts or ideas (obsessions) that cause them to feel driven to do something (compulsions). Examples include excessive hand washing, counting, and making sure doors are always locked.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is characterized by persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of a traumatic or terrifying experience. 

How Worry Differs from Anxiety

While anxiety and worry share many similar attributes, they are different. Almost everyone worries, so what is worry vs anxiety? 

1. Worry can be rational, while anxiety often involves catastrophic thought patterns

Worry is commonly rooted in reason, whereas anxiety is not. For example, you might worry that you’ll be late to work because an accident is causing traffic. This worry is rational, objective, and based on a logical thought process. It’s also fleeting. You likely won’t have the same worry on tomorrow’s commute into the office, unless there’s another accident or traffic jam.

If you have anxiety, however, you might have a tendency to think the worst in every situation. You may panic about getting into a car accident since you just saw one, or you may fear losing your job because you’ll be late. Irrational thought processes that stem from anxiety often disrupt practical and reasonable thinking.

2. Worry is usually asymptomatic, but anxiety presents with physical symptoms

One thing to keep in mind when researching the differences between worry vs anxiety is how physical symptoms present in each. While someone who worries can experience mild physical symptoms (like a nervous stomach) usually, feelings related to worry quickly resolve and don’t cause major disruptions to the body.

Unfortunately, people with true anxiety often experience physical symptoms ranging from nausea and trembling, to weakness, to rapid heart rate, and more. 

3. Worry is planned, while anxiety is not

When you worry, it’s usually about an upcoming event you’re concerned about. For example, you might worry that you have a test soon, and you know you’ll need to study in order to do well. Worry can even be helpful in cases like this because it can motivate you to learn or prepare.

The same is not true when it comes to anxiety. You can’t plan when anxiety will come on. Some people may have test anxiety the day of the test, no matter how much they’ve studied. Or they may feel anxious about having to fly on a plane in a few weeks. Anxiety can seem to come from nowhere, and it can lead to intrusive thoughts and fear of impending doom.

4. Worry is fleeting, but anxiety is not

You can problem-solve with worry, but anxiety is harder to fix. You may worry about getting to an early morning appointment on time, so you set your alarm early. Your need to worry is likely over. 

If you have anxiety, though, you might not be able to fall asleep the night before your appointment because you fear your alarm may not go off. Then, even if you wake up on time, your anxiety might make you feel panicky over the possibility that construction, an accident, or getting lost (or all 3 of those things) might make you late. 

Even things that are unrealistic or unlikely to happen can cause anxiety. It can get so bad that it might begin to affect your ability to function. Unlike worry, anxiety is a chronic condition that can have a significant impact on your daily life and functioning.

5. Worry doesn’t usually impact daily functioning, but anxiety can

If you have anxiety, you know how debilitating it can be. For example, people with anxiety may have such a severe fear of germs that they’re afraid to work in an office building. 

Many people worry about getting sick, but they don’t let their fear prevent them from participating in daily activities. Someone who worries might take precautions, like washing their hands, wearing a mask, or using hand sanitizer, but they won’t let any apprehension stop them from working. 

“Worry can be understood as a symptom of anxiety. We cannot control how automatically our worry thoughts appear in our minds, but if you’re noticing they’re causing you distress, or they are impacting your sleep or your focus at work, we definitely encourage you to reach out to a therapist. Know that there is lots of support out there for you, you deserve help.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

When to Seek Professional Help

There’s never a wrong time to seek professional help if you’re concerned that your excessive worrying might actually be anxiety. You don’t need a mental health diagnosis to look for help. Worry, anxiety, or stress — it doesn’t matter. If it’s affecting your life negatively, you can always get help. 

“You don’t have to wait for a crisis in your life to reach out to a therapist or psychiatrist. If you or someone you care about is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, reach out for support — early intervention is ideal so you can get the help you need.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Acknowledging when excessive worry and anxiety are taking over is essential if you want to live a rewarding, healthy, and happy life.  

Anytime you feel that anxiety and worry are beginning to spiral out of control, it’s time to take the next step. If any of the following pertain to you or a loved one, please don’t hesitate to get help:

  • Excessive worry and anxiety that are hindering personal and/or professional relationships
  • Stress that causes persistent sleep issues like insomnia
  • Worry that is affecting your ability to concentrate
  • Fear that keeps you from doing the things you enjoy
  • Anxiety that’s making you feel worthless and isolating you from others
  • Excessive worry or anxiety that begins to cause you to have suicidal thoughts

Online therapy platforms like Talkspace allow you to connect with a licensed mental health professional who can teach you how to stop worrying and improve your mental health. Start today.

Sources:

1. Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Adaa.org. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics. Published 2021. Accessed June 9, 2022.

2. (DCD), Digital Communications Division. “What Are the Five Major Types of Anxiety Disorders?” HHS.gov, 20 Oct. 2021, https://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html.  

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

You May Also Like
Anxious young woman being comforted by a friend
Read More
Published on: 26 Feb 2018

What Is Second-Hand Anxiety?

Published on: 26 Feb 2018
Your friend comes over after a bad day. Huffing and puffing, he brings it all to you: His boss was…
Anatomy of Anxiety Part Two
Read More
Published on: 01 Oct 2019

Part II: Anatomy of My Anxiety

Published on: 01 Oct 2019
This is the second part of an essay detailing the life of a condition — anxiety — a…