The 2020–21 Annual Population Survey revealed the highest average rating of anxiety among UK adults recorded since the record books began in 2011. The average self-reported anxiety rating was up 12.5% on what was reported at the same time of year in 2019–20, and while this is likely owing to the spate of lockdowns brought about by COVID-19, ratings of personal well-being have also significantly deteriorated nearly four times over (37.4%).
Clearly, swathes of people are struggling with personal stressors at present, and while this is alarming for a range of immediate public health reasons, one could argue this is hardly surprising given the vast body of science linking stress to adverse mental (and physical) heath.
Knowing the difference between the most common forms of negative affect in stress, worry, and anxiety however, might just help us control our minds better when we’re next in the midst of one of these episodes.
The overlap: What is worry, stress, and anxiety?
Four in ten of us reported feeling stressed, worried, or anxious in the past year; but if in one of these moments you were asked which you were experiencing, would you know the difference? Well, worry happens when our minds dwell on negative (and often uncertain) outcomes and is sometimes used as a self-driven problem-solving strategy; for these reasons worry is mostly concerned with future events, it happens in our heads, and is considered the cognitive component of anxiety. That’s not to say it cannot be helpful though, as conjuring plans to keep yourself safe is certainly better than walking into a problem blindly, but the damage has been shown to come when these worries become repetitive and obsessive.
Stress is different in that it relies on our perceived inability to cope with an external event – or in other words an external ‘stressor’. Take anticipating that you will fail to an upcoming exam, these changes in our environment lead to forces that exceed our perceived ability to cope; cue the upbeat heart rate and sweaty palms. Not all stress is bad though. Truly, this acute ‘fight or flight’ response would have kept us alive in prehistoric times, but firing up your limbic system (and releasing adrenaline and cortisol) to escape a lion isn’t half as helpful as the chronic physiological response incurred by overthinking the last time you failed a test. And herein lies the challenge, if you can’t ‘switch off’ your body stays in this fight-or-flight mode incessantly, which has been shown to predict a variety of health problems.
What is anxiety? One way to think of anxiety is as a bit of a self-engineered false alarm; such that if worry and stress are the indicators of maladaptive thinking and coping (respectively), then anxiety is their product – except, there is no threat at all. Take turning up late for work, for example. Owing to the physiology of the stress response, you arrive all flustered, your blood is flowing, the adrenaline is pumping; all because you are concerned about how your employer might react – but there is no danger at all. But, nothing ever comes of it. So, while temporal anxiety can ensure you’re never late for work, it can also have longstanding impacts on our health if not controlled.
So, what’s the takeaway?
Worry is in your head, stress happens in your body, and anxiety happens in your mind and your body.
Despite the recent increase in statistics showing we are an increasingly stressed population, there are simple and evidence-based steps you can take to help yourself.
Remember that, in small doses, worry, stress, and anxiety can do good for us and serve an evolutionary purpose to protect us. And that, after all, as research has shown around 85% of what we worry about never happens anyway, we should take more notice of the interplay between our perceptions and their reality.
Dane McCarrick is a postgraduate researcher in the Laboratory for Stress & Health Research (STARlab) at the University of Leeds.
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