Insights into Psychology

What Is… Anxiety vs. Worry

Chart contrasting anxiety and worry

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s terms are anxiety vs. worry.

Anxiety and worry are both normal human experiences, but when severe they can be elements of mental illness. Notably, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) features both of them. People with high levels of neuroticism as a personality trait also tend to have high levels of anxiety and worry. While anxiety and worry may coexist and have some similarities, there are also some differences.


Anxiety involves feelings of dread over anticipated events. It’s an emotion that has associated cognitive and physiological elements; it’s a whole enchilada experience.

Anxiety is a natural response to perceived threats. We all have cognitive biases (mental shortcuts to make our minds more efficient) that can feed into anxiety, including feelings of anxiety in social situations. Fear is the term for an anxious response to immediate threats, and it involves activation of the automatic fight/flight/freeze system, which can trigger panic attacks.

Low levels of anxiety can actually improve performance, but high levels of anxiety can have a significant negative impact on overall functioning. More severe anxiety can be quite persistent and difficult to control.


Wikipedia offers this somewhat wordy definition:

Worry refers to the thoughts, images, emotions, and actions of a negative nature in a repetitive, uncontrollable manner that results from a proactive cognitive risk analysis made to avoid or solve anticipated potential threats and their potential consequences.

Worry is a cognitive process that’s directed towards the future.& Because it’s cognitively based, it tends to produce less emotional distress than anxiety does. It also tends to be more specific than anxiety, and it’s quite verbally focused, without the mental imagery that can accompany anxiety.

Worry can be fixated on personal issues or issues in the broader world, and it tends to revolve around more realistic concerns than anxiety does. It’s associated with an external locus of control, i.e. the belief that control over events is outside of oneself.

Excessive worry can result in overestimation of future dangers. This can lead to avoidance, and then when the feared outcome doesn’t happen, it’s interpreted as the worrying being effective. This, in turn, may fuel a sense that one should worry in order to minimize the risk of negative outcomes. A major focus in therapy for worry-related issues exposure to learn that worry does not match outcomes.

Measuring anxiety & worry

The Penn State Worry Questionnaire can be used to evaluate the level of worrying, and in case you’re interested in taking it, there’s a version of the PSWQ here.

The Hamilton Anxiety Scale is sometimes used in clinical practice to assess levels of anxiety symptoms. It’s not meant to be used for self-report, but there’s a version of the HAM-A here that gives an idea of the range of physical manifestations of anxiety.

I sometimes experience anxiety as part of my depression, but it’s usually physical symptoms, without a strong emotional or cognitive element. I never used to be a worrier, but over the last couple of years, I have regular but brief spurts of worrying about being able to support myself that kick in around bedtime. Aside from that, though, for the most part I don’t do all that much worrying.

Do you struggle with worry or anxiety? Or both?

This module on worry comes from the Centre for Clinical Interventions.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages from Mental Health @ Home.

21 thoughts on “What Is… Anxiety vs. Worry”

  1. I used to worry a lot but medication and therapy have managed to calm that storm.

    I sometimes get the physical sensations of anxiety (‘something is going to go wrong my mind responds’) but sometimes I think it is because I’m really tired or that I have some ‘teached helplessness’ (Seligmann) I don’t know what the term is in English. But that I expect not being able to cope with things (life) because of earlier experiences. So that is not logical and not in my head but purely in my body as maybe a reaction to the tiredness.

    1. Learned helplessness in English.

      It’s hard evaluating coping ability because to some extent it’s useful to recognize the kinds of things that may pose a risk of relapse. Although I guess the thought process for that would be different than the more automatic anxiety and worry.

      1. Yes, I’m working on decoding the warning signs of a relapse.
        I also learned that my body is really out of balance and that it sends some (very) strong signals sometimes because it was never really attended too. In that regard I can understand the ‘anxiety’.

  2. Huh. I hate anxiety, and therefore I’m glad that I don’t suffer from it. Anxiety and depression both feel “worse” to me than paranoia, which is weird, but I guess we all have a certain amount of tolerance for illnesses we’re stuck with, and we hate the rest…? No clue. And then when I’m obsessive, it doesn’t feel like anything, but I notice myself behaving in irrational ways, which is obviously bad.

    Whenever I visit my mom, she tries to get me to worry like she does, and she never succeeds at this task. Yesterday, she said, “I’m starting to think you’d be okay if your father were to die tragically, leaving you bereft and alone; or if he were to have a heart attack or stroke, casting you as his devastated caregiver.”

    And I was like, “Yeah, I look forward to it.” [Eyeroll.]

    And then, she told me she’s left me money in a trust, and the money will be meted out to me by my dad, until he dies; and then by this guy I hate (Mother’s best friend’s son); and then by my sister. And I was like, “Okay, do whatever you want to do, but Ellen will take the money and run.”

    And my mom said, “She’s not all evil.” [More eyerolling.] “I wish you could meet the baby.”

    And I said, “I’d want to kidnap her to protect her from Evil Ellen.”

    And my mom got all patronizing and was like, “Ohh, honey, no one wants to hurt the baby.”

    Sometimes I just hate my mom.

  3. I’ve always been a worrier and then a few years back the anxiety kicked in. Now I think I’m neither on the whole. For me anxiety leads very quickly to depression. I didn’t realise that until recently. I suspect is my coping mechanism. Absolutely hate that feeling of anxiety so I’ll do anything to get rid or avoid. Drinking booze was one strategy, shutting down and disengaging was the other. Luckily taking alcohol out of the loop has reduced anxiety and therefore lessened the periods of depression or low mood.

  4. I have anxiety as you know. Not as bad as it once was, but can still creep in times.

    I am also a worrier at times. A lot has been mainly to do with my mum and this can trigger some of the anxiety off.
    Anxiety has also been caused by other different things in the past, which were a not to do with mum, but other things.

      1. It’s certainly helped. The triggers now is when I have certain thoughts. But thankfully, I am learning to not worry about something that I don’t even know if it will happen.
        I also remind myself that in the event of the unexpected in the future and I can’t cope, my counsellor will be the first person I will contact.

          1. Yes. I won’t hesitate. My counsellor also reminded me that if I ever need to chat again. Even if it’s a one off, to contact her, so I can offload.

  5. We tried to take the Penn State Worry quiz and could not answer even the first question. We read the next question and could not answer it either. It was a little alarming, and then someone inside remembered we have me’s. This is what DID is like sometimes. We could not agree on what the question meant, which rendered answering no easier.

    Yesterday, we got stuck in loops over the same decision. Should we do this? How about this? This? And then someone inside would realize that we’ve considered like 35 possibilities, had narrowed it down to a few, and now we’re just starting the process all over again. Not sure if worry is a part of it or anxiety in making the wrong decision. Or if it is just DID and lack of executive functioning: No decider.

    We like learning things like this. Today we are not able to understand how it relates to us. We do know what we really love you! Hope you are well today

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