Anxiety and worry are similar, but people may use the word “anxiety” when their symptoms are more extreme.

Everyone worries to some degree. Chances are you’re worrying about something right now, whether it’s minor, like what to have for dinner, or more serious, like worrying about a loved one’s health.

Anxiety and worry are basically different terms for the same thing — but when worries take up all of your brain space and anxiety becomes constant and disproportionate, you may be living with an anxiety disorder.

Psych Central spoke with Dean Aslinia, PhD, LPC-S, NCC, chair for the mental health counseling program at the University of Phoenix, to dive deeper into how typical worry differs from an anxiety disorder.

“How I like to explain anxiety to my clients is that [typical worry or anxiety] is your body’s alarm to a potential threat,” says Aslinia. He says that while people often view anxiety as something negative, it’s not the enemy.

“Imagine sitting in your house, and the burglar alarm goes off. This provides you the opportunity to check the house and to see if there is a potential threat, or if perhaps maybe the wind opened the door, causing the alarm to go off,” he says.

The alarm, like your anxiety, helps alert you to a potential threat and allows you to address it. And if there is no threat, you can turn off the alarm or stop being anxious and return to your usual activities.

Without some level of anxiety, you’d probably end up in more than one sticky situation. But the alarm system can sometimes be faulty. Aslinia explains that you can run into problems when this bodily “alarm” doesn’t shut off.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), for example, involves excessive, constant worrying over various things.

For someone to diagnose you with GAD, you must have trouble controlling anxious thoughts on most days for at least 6 months. GAD can also cause regular:

  • feelings of being on edge
  • feelings of impending doom
  • fatigue or tiredness
  • periods of hyperventilating, sweating, or trembling
  • trouble concentrating
  • nausea or stomach troubles
  • difficulty sleeping

If you worry excessively, you might find it taking a toll on your mental health, leading to high stress levels, overwhelm, or burnout.

In this case, it can be helpful to talk with someone. Excess worry may be a sign of an anxiety disorder like GAD. If you’re not comfortable seeing a mental health professional just yet, Aslinia recommends talking with a trusted friend or loved one.

They can help you determine whether your worries are valid and likely to occur, giving you a sense of whether talking with a professional might be beneficial.

“Generally speaking, any time our brain cannot anticipate what is going to happen next, that is when anxiety and worrying pop into our heads. It is our brain’s way of trying to create all the potential scenarios that can happen so that you can make the most informed decision about how to proceed,” explains Aslinia.

When your anxiety is working as it should and helping you identify and address potential threats, it’s relatively simple to manage. It is virtually impossible to avoid worry altogether, so Aslinia recommends trying to figure out the root cause of your worry.

He adds that recognizing that anxiety and worry are tools that help alert you to potential threats can also make these emotions easier to manage.

But if you tend to worry about everything and can’t seem to stop intrusive anxious thoughts from surfacing, he says it might be a good idea to talk with a mental health professional.

They may recommend a therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), anxiety medication, or a combination of the two to treat an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is part of the human experience. It can help you avoid and deal with potential threats when it functions well.

When worry crosses into anxiety disorder territory and becomes constant background noise in your life, you may want to consider speaking with a mental health professional to discuss what you’re feeling.

Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.

You may also find it helpful to learn coping skills for dealing with daily anxiety and stress. A few resources to consider checking out include: