Laying awake at night, feeling nervous or fatigued, anger and irritability, are common symptoms of stress in the modern-day, and none of us are immune. The American Psychological Association reports that nearly every American feels stress at some point, with 3 out of 4 experiencing stress symptoms at least once a day1.
There are many reasons for someone to feel concerned: finances, politics, and the dozens of relationships we all try to balance and nurture. When considering all these issues, how would you answer a friend who asks how you're feeling?
Would you say you're stressed? Anxious? Maybe you'd tell them you're worried.
On the surface, all these answers might seem the same. Still, anxiety, worry, and stress are different feelings despite being closely related.
Knowing the differences between these three emotions is critical to coping with them. If you find yourself in need of additional resources or asking for help, it's best to articulate how you are feeling accurately.
Worry is an unpleasant feeling marked by concern over uncertainty or the possible negative consequences of a problem or mistake. The critical component of worrying is not knowing how things will turn out. Perhaps you fought with a loved one, and now you are uncertain of how they will react. Maybe an unexpected expense eats up all your funds. You're panicking over what will happen if you miss your mortgage payment because of it. These situations provoke worry.
A little bit of worry is a good thing. A healthy amount of worry can calm our minds and encourage problem-solving thoughts and behaviors. Kate Sweeny, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the co-author of "The Surprising Upsides of Worry," says that our worries are a necessary protection against our destructive impulses2. For example, worry over the health risks of obesity may prompt you to eat well and exercise.
However, when worry leads to obsession over negative thoughts, it ceases to be useful and becomes dangerous instead.
Have you ever been told to "stop worrying" about something? It's useful advice, but often frustrating because many of us struggle to control our thoughts and emotions. Yet it is possible to "budget" your worry.
When you notice that you're worrying, glance at the clock, and give yourself a good half hour to experience all the worry and fear that comes to you. Do your best to accept this emotion without judgment. When the time is up, direct your thoughts elsewhere. Through self-compassion and practice, you can train your mind like you would any muscle in your body. The benefits of this practice can enhance your wellbeing, resilience, and coping with these stressful thoughts and emotions3.
One of the most effective ways to stop worry and bring on a feeling of accomplishment is redirecting your worry into planning efforts. Force yourself to start taking steps to fix or address what's causing you to worry— for example, draft a new budget to help with financial worries.
You may feel you have no control over a situation, such as when you worry about the economy or politics. Instead, focus your efforts on coming up with things that you can do as an individual and calm yourself by knowing you're doing everything you can.
Unlike worry, which originates within the speculation of your thoughts, stress comes from external factors. Stress has close ties to the hormone cortisol. In evolutionary terms, it exists to kick our brains into that "fight or flight" response that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Unfortunately, because in the modern day we face fewer saber-toothed tiger attacks than in millennia prior, stress often does more harm than good.
Some examples of "good" stress are: stressing about an upcoming deadline or stressing because you are running late. You'll notice these kinds of acute stress motivate you to get things done and dissipate down once the task is complete.
Some examples of "bad" stress are: continuously stressing about an unhealthy relationship or feeling pressure every day because of your finances. These forms of chronic stress can negatively affect your mental and physical health because they have no end. Research has shown that long term stress like this has ties linked to hypertension and other health issues4. It may also interfere with sleep and digestion or weaken your immune system.
Some stressful situations are outside of your control, and that's okay. Focus on what you can do to resolve stress in your life and strive to accept the things that you cannot.
There's an intimate entwining of physical and mental wellbeing. Doing your best to eat right and stay active can help mitigate stress. Exercise also produces endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, easing the effects of stress on your body5.
Some people suffer from chronic stress that they can't seem to control. Do you feel that your stress levels interfere with your ability to do everyday tasks like cooking or getting out of bed in the morning? If so, you should consider sharing your concerns with your doctor6.
Think of anxiety as a culmination of worry and stress. It cannot exist without the other two. If stress is the body's response to a perceived threat, then anxiety is what happens when your body shifts into overdrive. Your body begins displaying the physiology of stress even when there is no threat.
Just like worry and stress, a little anxiety is entirely normal. We've all felt anxious about our jobs, relationships, or important upcoming events. However, extreme levels of anxiety may fall under certain anxiety disorders, which may require treatment to manage. If you struggle to carry on routine life tasks, that's a sign that your anxiety may be something serious. For those with anxious thoughts that pop up now and then in a healthier capacity, there are ways to ease this unwanted emotion. The difference is like this: Stress is when your boss tells you that your performance has slipped, and the company may have to let you go. Anxiety is noticing your boss never responded to an email you sent. Therefore, you work yourself into an anxious state because you think that your job and finances are now in danger.
Caffeine, alcohol, and sugar all stimulate your body in some way. Since anxiety is physiological, this extra stimulation can make anxiety symptoms worse. You don't have to abstain from your favorite snacks completely. It's just a good idea to try and cut back if you struggle with anxiety.
Distracting one or two of your senses can help ease anxious feelings. Going outside for a brisk walk, listening to your favorite music, or watching a quick television episode may help. Some people experience relief from anxiety by refocusing their sense of touch. Velcro or similar materials may give your body the jumpstart it needs to snap out of overwhelming anxious thoughts.
If your anxiety is frequently disrupting your life, then you need to talk with your doctor. Anxiety disorders can affect your relationships and your ability to work, relax, and perform daily tasks.
Remember that worry, stress, and anxiety are normal emotions that we all experience. You will never be able to eliminate these feelings from your life. Still, with determination and practice, you can learn to mitigate them.
(1) Winerman L (Dec 2017) By the numbers: Our stressed-out nation
(2) Dooley M (Apr 2017) The surprising upsides of worry
(3) Neff, K., & Davidson, O. (2016) Self-compassion: Embracing suffering with kindness
(4) Mayo Clinic (Jan 2019) Stress and high blood pressure: What's the connection?
(5) Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2018) Physical Activity Reduces Stress
(6) Reviewed by Bhandari S, MD (Nov 2019) What Are Anxiety Disorders?