Differentiating between worry, stress, and anxiety
August 2022   MENTAL HEALTH

Differentiating between worry, stress, and anxiety

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Differentiating between worry, stress, and anxiety

In our daily lives, it is normal for us to use the words ‘worried’, ‘stressed’, or ‘anxious’ interchangeably. They are indispensable in conveying our state of mind and can help us to reach out to our colleagues, family, and friends in our time of need. However, being able to differentiate between these three terminologies can also prove to be vital in helping us to identify the issues that are affecting our mental health and thus deal with them more effectively. In settings where we already have a limited amount of time and energy to begin with, such as when we are at work, being able to understand and take care of our mental health can empower us to turn the tide in our favour.

What are the differences between worry, stress, and anxiety?

Worry is defined as the emotion that is felt when our minds dwell on negative thoughts as well as things that could go wrong. Since worry is an emotion, it only occurs in the mind. However, it is also vital to acknowledge the purpose that it serves despite the negative aspects that it can add to our lives. For one, worrying and dwelling on difficult situations help to kickstart the problem-solving process in our minds, equipping us with the tools needed for us to take action and alleviate those worries. Some common worries that we may face in the workplace could be caused by taking up new, challenging projects or simply returning to the office after an extended period of working from home.

Stress is a physiological response exhibited by our body when triggered by a stressor. In most cases, this stressor is generally an external event that is out of our control, such as periods of recession that can disrupt our financial and job security. When this happens, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode, prompting our limbic system to release adrenaline and cortisol to help us deal with the problem. Stress can generally be defined by the duration in which it affects us. Acute stress, for example, tends to be short-lived and will usually wear off once the issue is dealt with. Its more worrying counterpart - chronic stress - occurs when the external trigger remains unresolved over a prolonged period of time or when there are multiple external triggers which are going off concurrently. Today, studies have linked chronic stress to a whole host of physical and mental health issues, including headaches, diabetes, heart disease, burnout, and more1.

Anxiety occurs when we are worried and stressed out at the same time, resulting in physiological and emotional responses that simultaneously affect our body and mind. Unlike stress, which is often triggered by an external factor, we can feel anxious even when there is no obvious cause or threat. This likely happens when we overthink and overreact to things, such as when we misinterpret our colleagues’ body language and tones while at work, in turn assuming that we have done something wrong. As human beings, experiencing everyday anxieties is more or less a common occurrence. Having an anxiety disorder, however, is a serious medical condition that requires professional support.

How can we cope with each of them more effectively?

With a better understanding of how to differentiate between what we feel, we can now address them in a more targeted manner by getting straight to the root of the problem.

Worrying is a cognitive process, which means that effective solutions should address our mental state, including our emotions and thoughts. For a start, give these 3 suggestions a shot to address your worries:

  • Find the best way to organise your thoughts. For some of us, this could mean writing down everything that is going through our mind, coming up with a to-do list, or talking things through with a friend or colleague.
  • Set aside a specific but sufficient duration of time to fully acknowledge and process our emotions. This helps to nudge us along the problem-solving process and prevents us from dwelling excessively on any negative emotions and thoughts.
  • Stay focused on the tasks at hand by establishing realistic goals and pushing away any stubborn, unhelpful thoughts. The sooner you resolve the issues at hand, the less time you will have to spend worrying about them.

Stress is a physiological process which occurs because of certain triggers that are out of our control, so our solutions should ideally deal with the fight-or-flight response instead. The next time you start to feel stressed, make use of the following 3 tips to calm yourself down:

  • Set aside a few minutes to do some light exercise. Something simple like taking a short walk or doing some stretches helps our body to lower adrenaline and cortisol levels.
  • Remind yourself that external factors and triggers are beyond our control. We should therefore focus our efforts on the things we can control while accepting what we cannot.
  • Avoid comparing our own stresses with others. Everyone faces different severities and types of stress in our lives, making such comparisons irrelevant and unproductive.

Anxiety takes a toll on both our body and mind, which means that it can sometimes be too overwhelming for us to find practical solutions in the heat of the moment. Staying grounded in the present can therefore be more helpful in letting us get through especially tough moments:

  • Engage in mindfulness activities that you find comfort in, such as practising breathing exercises or following a quick guided meditation.
  • Find enjoyable distractions that can take your mind off the negative emotions and sensations in that moment. Some common ways to do so include listening to your favourite music and podcast or snacking on some healthy comfort food.
  • Prioritise your physical and mental health by practising self-care, such as eating well and staying hydrated, even when it seems tempting to give in to destructive urges to cope in that moment.

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Over to you

Taking care of ourselves and our health is a constantly changing journey that we all struggle with. Although things can seem especially difficult at times, it helps to remember that it will not always stay this way. There are always resources and people who will be there for you in your time of need, so be sure to reach out when you feel alone. We are with you - all the way.


1. Mariotti, A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication.

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