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What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it’s natural to want to experience relief. But there’s also the worry that it might be something more than just regular stress. How do you know if you’re experiencing stress or anxiety?

We’ll examine the differences between stress and anxiety, and how you can determine which one is affecting you.

How to Tell Stress from Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are closely related, but there are some important differences to note between the two. Let’s explore some key differences.

First, stress is a response to an external trigger, while anxiety is a more internalized feeling.

In other words, something happening in your environment (a work deadline, a fight with a friend) can cause stress, while anxiety might be more related to your own thoughts and feelings (worrying about the future, feeling overwhelmed).

What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

Second, stress is generally considered to be a short-term condition, while anxiety is more long-term.

Stress may come and go depending on the situation, but anxiety can last for weeks or even months. Typically with stress, you know why you’re experiencing it. That’s not always the case with anxiety.

Anxiety can sneak up on you, seemingly out of nowhere. It can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause. As an anxiety sufferer, there have been days when I knew I was experiencing high levels of anxiety, but could not for the life of me say why. That is the insidious nature of it.

The Biggest Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Perhaps the biggest difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is a normal human reaction. In fact, stress has been critical to our survival as a species. The “fight or flight” response is our body’s way of protecting us from danger.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is an abnormal reaction. It’s our body’s way of responding to stressors, but it gets out of control.

With anxiety, the threat is usually not real, or at least not as dangerous as our body perceives it to be. But that doesn’t matter. The physical symptoms are the same as if the threat were real, which makes managing anxiety so complicated.

Can stress turn into anxiety?

The answer to this question is a tentative “yes.”

Stress and anxiety feel similar, but they are fundamentally different processes in the body. So it’s not so simple as saying that stress will “become” anxiety. Here’s a more accurate way of talking about the relationship between the two.

Stress can trigger anxiety symptoms and panic attacks in people who suffer from anxiety disorders.

It is also the case that untreated chronic stress can lead to the development of anxiety symptoms, which puts a person at risk of developing a full-blown anxiety disorder if left untreated.

What does stress feel like?

The physical symptoms of stress are the same as anxiety: heart racing, chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, sweating, and dizziness.

But with stress, these symptoms are caused by an external trigger (a work deadline, a fight with a friend) and are generally considered to be short-term.

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety is more internalized, and the symptoms are both physical and mental. Anxiety may cause you to feel tense, nervous, or on edge. You might have racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate, or feel like your mind has gone blank.

You might also experience gastrointestinal issues like upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation. Muscle tension is also common, and you might find yourself clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth.

Anxiety can also cause insomnia, as well as fatigue during the day. It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re in a fog, or that everything is happening in slow motion.

The physical symptoms of anxiety can be so severe that they interfere with your ability to function in day-to-day life. And the mental symptoms can be just as debilitating.

felt head profile with chaotic string representing a brain with anxiety
stress vs anxiety: key differences to know

How to know if you’re feeling stress or anxiety?

The best way to know if you’re feeling stress or anxiety is to see a mental health professional.T hey can help you identify the root cause of your symptoms and develop a plan to address them.

Additionally, you may want to take keep a journal or take notes to observe your stress levels and triggers. How often do you feel stressed? Is there a clear cause of your stress? For example, a demanding boss, work deadlines, relationship problems, and parenting woes. Do you feel it constantly? Are you able to find relief from your stress through common strategies like exercise or deep breathing exercises?

Whether or not you can correctly self-diagnose yourself with stress or anxiety is irrelevant. What you really want to do is make an honest determination if you are able to manage your stress levels and keep them down.

If you feel surrounded by stress and worry, it’s a good sign to speak to someone, regardless of whether the root cause is chronic stress or anxiety.

Related Post: How to Ask Your Doctor for Anxiety Medication

What are signs you should get help for your anxiety?

If your anxiety is severe and interferes with your ability to function in daily life, it’s time to seek professional help.

Additionally, if you find that self-care strategies like exercise, relaxation techniques, and healthy coping mechanisms aren’t helping, or if they’re actually making your anxiety worse, it’s time to get professional help.

Anxiety disorders are treatable, and there are a variety of effective treatments available. It may take some trial and error, and partnering with a knowledgeable medical professional is important, but you can get there!

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist with the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

FAQ about Stress vs Anxiety

What comes first – stress or anxiety?

There is no clear answer, as both stress and anxiety can be triggered by external factors. However, it is generally accepted that untreated chronic stress can lead to the development of anxiety symptoms.

Keep in mind that anxiety disorders are not solely caused by unmanaged or chronic stress. There are a number of factors to consider like genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences. It is not always a chicken and egg scenario with stress and anxiety.

Is anxiety worse than stress?

There is no easy answer, as both stress and anxiety can be debilitating. It really depends on the severity of symptoms and how they interfere with your ability to function in daily life.

How do I get rid of stress?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, as stress management looks different for everyone. However, common stress relief strategies include exercise, relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, journaling, and spending time in nature. If you’re struggling to manage your stress, it may be a good idea to see a mental health professional for additional support.

Can you self-diagnose anxiety?

While you may be able to identify some symptoms of anxiety, it’s always best to consult with a mental health professional to get a correct diagnosis.

You can certainly learn about and understand the signs of anxiety, but this should not be used to diagnose yourself. Rather, use your knowledge to make an informed decision about seeking tre

Summary: The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably, but they are actually very different. Stress is a natural human reaction to external stimuli. Biologically, it’s been an important tool for keeping the human species going.

But it can cause serious problems, especially in our modern world. Anxiety and anxiety disorders share similarities with stress but are abnormal reactions to threats – whether real or perceived. It is constant worrying, sometimes without any clear cause.

Both can have debilitating effects on a person’s quality of life, so it is important to manage stress levels and mental health before these problems become overwhelming.

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