Stress or Anxiety – Which One Is It?

Can you believe summer’s almost over? Just like that, it’s time to start gearing up for fall again. School’s back in session, it’s no longer vacation time at work — back to life, back to reality.

The fall can bring exciting changes or get you back into old routines, but preparing for its arrival can be hectic and downright nerve-wracking. This may be a time of great stress for you, so it’s important that you know yourself and how to handle stressful situations. It’s also important to understand the difference between stress and its close relative, anxiety, so you can know which one you might be experiencing and how to deal with it.

My anxiety is through the roof with this deadline looming.
I’m so stressed. I’m going to have a panic attack!
These are common phrases we use when we’re stressed, and often the terms stress and anxiety are used interchangeably. While the two are related and may look very similar, they are actually quite different. It’s important to know the difference so that you can identify and address them properly.

Similarities Between Stress and Anxiety

One of the reasons stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably is that they share many of the same symptoms. Heightened heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, lack of focus, irritability, excessive worry and headaches are all symptoms common to both.1

There are important differences between stress and anxiety, however. Let’s take a look at each one.

What Is Stress?

Stress is your body’s reaction to an external trigger or event, and it is generally short-lived. Stress can actually be positive, as it may kick in with a tight deadline or a threatening situation that requires quick action.

When it creates ongoing symptoms and impairs your ability to get things done, however, it quickly turns negative.1
There are many emotional and physical disorders linked to stress, such as depression, anxiety, heart attack, stroke, gastrointestinal issues, obesity and hypertension.1 Prolonged stress, in particular, can wreak havoc on your health. So it’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms.

Common Symptoms of Stress

  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Back and neck pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweaty hands and feet
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Frequent illness
  • Irritability
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Excessive worry
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Poor concentration
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low energy
  • Loss of sex drive 1

While these are common symptoms, you’ll want to be able to recognize your specific responses to stress and how it affects you personally in order to find the best ways to cope.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a person’s internal reaction to stress, typically characterized by persistent feelings of apprehension or dread in situations that aren’t actually threatening. In severe cases, it can escalate into an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.2 Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the US.1

While the cause of stress can usually be identified, the cause of anxiety is often hard to pinpoint. Stress usually dissolves once the specific threat is resolved, but anxiety hangs around and can cause issues in important areas of functioning.1

Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Restlessness or edginess
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Psychosomatic symptoms like headaches, stomachaches or dizziness
  • Physical symptoms like shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, chest pain
  • Significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning 1

When Should You Seek Help?

Whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, it’s likely you could benefit from seeking professional help and finding ways to cope with your symptoms. Neither stress nor anxiety is healthy to experience long-term. If you find that anxiety or prolonged stress is interfering with your daily life and inhibiting your ability to function normally, it’s probably time to seek professional help.

Coping with stress usually involves simple practices like relaxation breathing, mindfulness, exercise, practicing proper sleep hygiene, journaling and other relaxing practices like listening to music or finding a creative pursuit. Adding such things into your routine may be enough to keep stress at bay, but if it isn’t, talk therapy can help.1

Anxiety symptoms may be relieved by similar daily practices, but because anxiety is more of an internal response or disorder, it’s likely that specific therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) will be needed to combat it.

If therapy and lifestyle changes alone don’t help, medication may provide the much-needed relief you’re looking for.1
As you enter into this new season, arm yourself with the tools you need to combat stress and anxiety and recognize what it is you’re experiencing. Make necessary lifestyle changes, create coping strategies and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you feel like you need it.

By Wesley Gallagher

1Hurley, Kate. “Stress vs. Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference.” Psycom, February 13, 2018.
2Ross, Franzi. “Stress vs. Anxiety – Knowing the Difference Is Critical to Your Health.” Mental Health First Aid, June 8, 2018.

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