Many believe the three (worrying, overthinking and anxiety) are basically the same thing. That couldn’t be further from the truth. From a clinical standpoint, anxiety disorder is a diagnosable mental health illness that comes in many forms.

Worrying too much and overthinking are symptoms, like anxiety, and they can also stand alone, independently of one another.

Before we get into the differences, it’s important to understand that any amount of anxiety certainly does not mean there is an underlying anxiety disorder. People often feel symptoms of anxiety in certain circumstances without meeting clinical criteria for a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. An example is being nervous to speak in front of crowds or feeling anxious about an upcoming deadline in the workplace.

The Worrying and Overthinking Response

When situations arise in life, some may begin to worry about the future. How will this situation affect the future? Uncertainty is a common trigger for worrying and overthinking. Likewise, some people spend excessive time overthinking and worrying about past events.

For these people, regardless of the trigger, there is always an event, situation or uncertainty for worrying to take place.

Overthinking can happen in a number of incidences and be virtually unrelated to worrying. When simple decisions, like choosing which hairstyle is best, could cause hours of overthinking, researching photos, studying face shapes, and so forth. Overthinking can also stem from worry and doubt, but they often go hand-in-hand.

Anxiety – The Symptom

Aside from the similarities to worrying too much and overthinking things, anxiety does have its own set of criteria. For example, anxiety doesn’t have to have a reason. In fact, oftentimes anxiety is based on something completely irrational.

Triggers for anxiety are as unique as the individual experiencing it. It tends to take hold with an unrelenting and unbending ferocity and may last for hours, days, or even longer.

The best way to describe “anxiety” is worry, overthinking, nervousness, fear, and disproportionately caring too much about something.

Anxiety – The Diagnosis

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Version), there are a number of anxiety disorders that can be diagnosed:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Agoraphobia

While the list is not comprehensive at all, it gives a general idea. The focus here is on GAD. Of course, like any other diagnosis there are set criteria necessary for a clinical diagnosis:

1. Presence of excessive anxiety, worry, overthinking, etc., on a variety of topics lasting at least six months.
2. The anxiety is hard to control.
3. The anxiety is in combination with at least three of the following: Restlessness, Fatigue, Irritability, Impaired Concentration, Muscle Aches/Tension, and Sleep Difficulty.

The Answer

Anxiety disorder is thought to have multiple causes. Certain people are predisposed to anxiety symptoms and anxiety disorders based on genetics and early childhood development. Others create an avenue for anxiety symptoms to be more prevalent and prominent with the use of stimulants, such as caffeine, diet pills and certain prescriptions medications.

Uncontrolled worrying and overthinking certainly can spiral out of control and cause even more anxiety symptoms. Many individuals with symptoms related to anxiety and an anxiety disorder will experience physical symptoms as well, like stomachache, sweating, heart pounding, diarrhea, nausea, and flushing. Worrying and overthinking, while not a singular cause, are definitely active responses in a clinical anxiety disorder as well, especially in GAD.

In any situation, if any of these symptoms are unrelenting and disrupting your life, seek medical attention for a proper diagnosis. A primary care provider, psychologist or psychiatrist would be beneficial in providing methods of overcoming uncontrolled symptomatology.