Clinical v. Colloquial: Anxiety v. Worry/Stress

When a friend recently asked me about my studies, I told her that my anxiety had been making it hard to push through the past two weeks. She responded, “I didn’t know you struggled with anxiety… This sounds so out of touch, but what exactly is it?  Maybe I’m so anxious I don’t know I’m anxious!”

I love this friend and I love her honesty; she brings up a good point. What does it mean to “struggle with anxiety?” Why should she even care? 

She should care because I’m her friend (and she does care!). You should care because anxiety is the most common mental illness in the US and affects at least 18% of the population. You probably currently or will love someone with anxiety.

But what is anxiety? How is it different from just being worried, stressed? Is calling yourself “anxious” the same as calling yourself “bipolar” or “OCD” when you don’t have those illnesses?

What is it?

The dictionary defines worry as when you have disturbing thoughts, and stress as a reaction to stimulus that disturbs the body.

But here’s the thing with anxiety: it has two definitions.

There’s the regular “I feel anxious.” The dictionary says it’s being worried or stressed about something bad that might happen.

But “I have anxiety” is when worry and stress becomes so intense, so frequent, and so overwhelming that it consistently interferes with normal life. This can look like escapism (media binging, sleeping, eating) or avoidance (mentally shutting down, false positivity, ignoring loved ones).  It can also be marked by obsessive worry/stress over innocuous or irrational matters. WebMD breaks down all the different kinds.

So saying “I feel anxious” without having anxiety is okay, because “anxiety” is not an exclusively mental-illness-related word.

For example, I can feel anxious about an upcoming deadline; I can be worried I won’t finish my paper on time, the teacher won’t like it, or I won’t understand what to do. I have anxiety when every deadline fills me with dread, and I have recurring intrusive thoughts of failure.

It’s important to seek counsel from a professional before diagnosing yourself and/or others.

“I’m Anxious About…”

It can be difficult to determine when someone is simply experiencing anxiety and when someone has anxiety. It is a gray line that separates the clinical from the colloquial.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter if you have anxiety or are just experiencing it because it feels the same at that time. Neither experience is more valid than the other. However, if anxiety starts to interfere with your every day life in significant ways, it is important to seek help and have support.

5 thoughts on “Clinical v. Colloquial: Anxiety v. Worry/Stress

  1. Thanks for this :)I think by experience they’re very different because colloquial anxiety is more rational. Personally it sort of allows me to think of possibilities like I have so much work so I should probably start or maybe I should ask for help or even an extension.Then clinical anxiety is on the other side of the spectrum, more irrational. You have loads of work to do but can’t even bring yourself to do it, you don’t want to ask for help in case people think you’re lazy, stuff like that. Okay at least that’s my personal experience. :)I love your post btw!


    1. Thank you, Lisa! And YES you explain it well. Colloquial can be more like a pressure/stress that still allows us to think, whereas clinical messes up the thinking process. Agreed, for me, too!


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