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What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

These days, it seems like feelings of stress and anxiety have become the norm. In fact, they’re so common that we talk about them interchangeably.

“I’m stressed out.”

“This is giving me anxiety.”

Yet, despite their similarities, stress and anxiety are actually not the same.

Understanding the difference is crucial not only for our mental well-being but also for finding the most effective ways to cope.

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.

Stress is essentially a reaction to external pressures or demands. This could be a work deadline, a major exam, or an argument with a friend. It’s specific and identifiable, directly linked to an external event, and tends to subside once the situation is resolved or the stressor is removed.

Anxiety, on the other hand, often doesn’t always have a clear external trigger.

It involves persistent worry or fear that continues even in the absence of immediate external challenges.

This can include concerns about future events, general feelings of being overwhelmed, or a sense of dread without a specific, identifiable cause. Anxiety is more about internal processing of these feelings and worries, which can persist over time and is not as directly tied to specific external events.

Even in the absence of an obvious trigger, anxiety can sneak up on you and stick around for weeks or months at a time.

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.

What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

A Caveat about Anxiety and External Triggers

Even though the primary distinction between stress and anxiety is that stress is typically a response to an external trigger and anxiety is more about internal worry, it’s important to recognize that external events can also precipitate anxiety.

This can happen in several ways:

  • Specific Situations: Certain external situations or events can trigger anxiety, especially if you perceive them as threatening or overwhelming. These are things like, financial problems, health concerns, or significant life changes such as moving to a new city or starting a new job. These can all lead to longer-term anxiety.
  • Environmental Stressors: Continuous exposure to stressful environments or situations can also escalate into anxiety. For example, working in a high-pressure job, living in a chaotic household, or enduring a war or humanitarian crisis can all trigger anxiety.
  • Past Experiences: Anxiety can also be triggered by external events that remind an individual of past traumas or stressful experiences. This is often seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where specific external cues can trigger anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Social Interactions: For some, social situations or performance settings (like speaking in public or attending large gatherings) can trigger intense anxiety or social anxiety disorder.

The big thing to note about anxiety is that it is a persistent an excessive type of worry that can continue even in the absence of the external trigger. This is what sets it apart from stress.

The Biggest Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Both stress and anxiety are normal human experiences. 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 is the one that gets us into trouble. It becomes especially problematic when it is disproportionate to the situation and hinders everyday functioning.

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.

Here’s why that happens.

Chronic stress exposes your brain to prolonged levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Over time, this continuous exposure can alter your brain’s structure and function, particularly in areas involved in mood regulation and emotion, such as the amygdala and hippocampus.

This alteration can lead to an increased sensitivity to stress and a heightened stress response.

Essentially, the brain becomes “primed” to perceive situations as more stressful or threatening than they may actually be, which can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.

The key point is that the prolonged stress impacts your brain’s chemical balance and neural pathways, making you more susceptible to anxiety.

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.

If you’re unsure what you’re dealing with, don’t be afraid to talk about it with a counselor or psychiatrist.

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 consult a mental health professional. They can help you identify the root cause of your symptoms and develop a plan to address them.

Another helpful tip is to keep a journal or take notes where you can observe your stress levels and triggers, looking for patterns and causes.

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.

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!

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

  • Answer a few questions.
  • Get matched with a licensed therapist.
  • Schedule your sessions.

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