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Worry, Anxiety, Stress, Panic, Phobia, and Fear:  What’s the Difference?

Worry, anxiety, panic, fear, what's the difference

Worry, Anxiety, Stress, Panic, Phobia, and Fear: What’s the Difference?

These terms get used a lot to described mental and emotional states. Is it an “Anxiety Attack” or a “Panic Attack?” Isn’t Phobia another word for Fear? Does worrying mean being fearful?

Confusing right?

While there is overlap and similarities between all of these terms, they are also distinct and separate from each other. They have their differences.


The definition of worrying is to cause anxiety by dwelling on difficulties. Worry may not always produce anxiety, however, especially if successful problem-solving occurs as a result of the worry.

When we worry, we repetitively think about the negative aspects of a problem.

We may do this because we are already feeling anxious. Then the worrying makes us feel more anxious. Then we feel anxious about feeling anxious. It’s a vicious circle that could lead to more symptoms of anxiety and possibly progress to symptoms of a panic attack.

Worrying is a normal part of life. It’s a signal that something could be wrong. It helps us solve problems. It prepares us for potential future problems.

Worrying can also be a sign of an anxiety disorder if the worries are excessive and the resulting anxiety interferes with your life.

Symptoms of Worry:

  • Repetitive or uncontrollable negative thoughts or images

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank

  • Muscle tension or muscle soreness

  • Poor sleep


Anxiety is the physiological feelings of tension, nervousness, racing heart, sweating, and feelings of dread that can be triggered by worried thoughts and/or fear.

Anxiety can be a feeling of apprehension about something in the future and anxiety can be experienced in the moment during stressful events.

All anxiety related disorders fall under the umbrellas of Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, and Trauma Related Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5, APA 2003). In the United States mental health professionals use the DSM as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnoses.

The DSM does not contain the term “Anxiety Attack.” It’s just referred to as “Anxiety”, and it is not the same as a Panic Attack.

Symptoms of Anxiety:

  • Having difficulty controlling worry

  • Sense of impending danger or doom

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge

  • Trembling, twitching

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank

  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)

  • Increased heart rate

  • Muscle tension or muscle soreness

  • Poor sleep

  • Frequent urination and/or diarrhea

  • Sweating

  • Nausea


Stress is often caused by a stressor. Stress is emotional or mental strain and is experienced when the demands of something (the stressor) outweigh our ability or our perceived ability to meet those demands.

Stressors include physical and emotional demands or conditions that we must endure such as continuous noise, extreme heat and cold, long work hours, financial obligations, family, and toxic relationships.

Symptoms of Stress:

  • Worry, negative thoughts or images

  • Stomach upset Nausea

  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge

  • Poor sleep

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle tension

  • Chest pain or discomfort


Panic is a sudden and uncontrollable feeling of fear and anxiety.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5, APA 2003) defines a Panic Attack as an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and during which time four (or more) emotional and physical symptoms are experienced.

Note that the abrupt surge can occur from a calm state or an anxious state.

Panic attacks can happen during specific feared situations and they can happen randomly during periods of non-threatening, normal activities such as sitting and watching TV.

Panic attacks are the body’s evolutionary response to a perceived external threat. The fight, flight, or freeze response is helpful if we encounter a wild animal poised to eat us. The adrenaline that begins flowing through our bodies aids in our escape and survival. When the external threat is defeated or evaded, the symptoms disappear.

For most people today, however, there is no wild animal. It’s a false alarm that signals an internal threat or danger. It’s a misperception of danger.

After experiencing a first panic attack, the fear becomes about experiencing another one.

Fear of experiencing a panic attack may actually bring on a panic attack and accelerate the symptoms of one already in progress, also known as, Fear of Fear.

Symptoms of Panic:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.

  • Sweating.

  • Trembling or shaking.

  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.

  • Feelings of choking.

  • Chest pain or discomfort.

  • Nausea or abdominal distress.

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.

  • Chills or heat sensations.

  • Numbness or tingling sensations.

  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).

  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”

  • Fear of dying.


A phobia refers more to the specific object or situation that is feared. Phobia means a “Fear of” something such as a fear of white kittens. It’s the thing that causes the fear.

A phobia is a label for an intense, irrational fear. It doesn’t seem reasonable to be fearful of white kittens.

Symptoms of a Phobia:

  • Specific Irrational Fear

  • Panic

  • Pounding heart

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling of choking

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea

  • Feeling dizzy faintness

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Chills or hot flashes


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen.”

Fear is the thinking or intellectual labeling of something as dangerous and the resulting feeling of extreme dread.

So fear is both an emotion (or feeling) and a thought.

You and I can feel fear in the moment as in “I was frozen in fear when the plane hit turbulence.”

Fear becomes a thought when we label something as fearful as in “I fear something bad ever happening to my family.”

Fear can be rational whereas a phobia is irrational.

Fear is an evolutionary biological mechanism that helps in our survival.

Symptoms of Fear:

  • Rational anticipation or awareness of danger

  • Trembling, shaking

  • Sweating

  • Increased heart rate