What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?
Updated May 19, 2020
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Since anxiety and stress have similar symptoms, it is important to understand both because the most effective treatment depends on the diagnosis. If you believe someone you, or someone you love, suffer(s) from either of these conditions, answering the question of "what is the difference between stress and anxiety?" is the first step on the road to getting your life back and feeling better.
What is Stress, and How Can I Recognize It?
Stress is basically the quite normal response our bodies have to any change. Such changes can be either positive or negative; and along a continuum of within, or outside, our control. The less control we have over the situation which is creating the stress we are experiencing, the more intense our stress reaction is likely to be. Not only do we experience stress as a response to even positive changes in our lives; but the stress reaction, itself, is also positive at times.
Our bodies are designed to react to stress effectively. You may have heard of the 'fight or flight response,' which is our bodies natural stress response, which creates physiological changes in order for the body to successfully react to stressful situations. The problem is when this natural, healthy, stress response is activated over a prolonged period of time, which can cause physical and emotional wear and tear on our bodies.
Such a negative state of stress, or distress, can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. Many times, it is the physical symptoms of stress that drive people to the doctor. Work, the demands of family, social relationships, and financial problems are some of the leading causes of stress.
The following list of symptoms are common in those who suffer from untreated stress:)
- High blood pressure
- Digestive issues
- Muscle aches and pains
- Sleep disturbances
- Depressed immune system (frequent colds, viruses)
- Skin problems (rashes, hives)
- Memory problems (forgetfulness)
- Lack of focus and concentration
- Bouts of depression
This is only a short list of symptoms, there are many more. The symptoms of stress can become so physically and mentally overwhelming that people who suffer from it end up at the doctor's office.
Stress can actually initiate, or increase certain symptoms and illnesses. Stress is linked, in some way, to six of the leading causes of death, including accidents, cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, lung issues and suicide. Unfortunately, some people engage in unhealthy 'self-soothing' activities, in attempts to manage their symptoms of stress, which actually tend to only keep the body in a stressed state, thereby increasing the damaging effects of the stress. These may include the compulsive use of food, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, gambling, etc.
Pay close attention to 'routine' stress. This occurs when the source of the stress is more constant, rather than acute or traumatic. For this reason, the body does not receive a clear signal to return to normal, as when an emergency event ends.
Potential Warning Signs of Stress
Unremitting stress can wear down the body's natural defenses, manifesting in a variety of physical symptoms, which may include the following:
Change in appetite - either increase or decrease
Change in weight - either gain or loss
Various, non-specific aches and pains
Grinding/gritting of teeth, clenched jaw
Gastrointestinal upset symptoms
Carrying muscle tension in upper body
How Can I Reduce My Stress?
You can absolutely learn to manage your stress and lead a happier, healthier life. Here are some recommendations to help you get started:
Be intentional to maintain a positive attitude.
Recognize, and accept, that there are some things you simply cannot control.
Practice healthy sleep habits. Avoiding sleep deprivation is mandatory for healthy living.
Adopt healthy eating patterns.
Be assertive instead of aggressive or passive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, defensive, or passive.
Master at least one relaxation technique, like deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation.
Learn effective time management strategies.
Create healthy boundaries. It is acceptable to politely decline requests that would create excessive stress in your life.
Plan, and engage, in regular leisure and pleasure activities.
Limit your use of alcohol, and do not use any substance or activity as a way to manage your stress.
Seek, and accept, support from family and friends. You deserve it.
If you believe you suffer from stress, and the strategies mentioned above are not sufficient, professional therapists and psychologists have the training needed to help you or a loved one deal with stress in a healthy way, giving you the tools to overcome stress.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety may be one of the results of prolonged stress, along with depression and panic attacks. But stress is not, necessarily, anxiety; nor does it automatically, or consistently, result in anxiety in all people. Stress and anxiety certainly share some common characteristics, which may account for why they are confused at times. Experiencing occasional anxiety is no cause for concern. Just as stress is a normal part of everyday living, so is some measure of anxiety. We all tend to operate at peak performance under a certain amount of anxiety. But if you experience anxiety that seems unremitting, uncontrollable, and which interferes with your normal functioning, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are very common, and are the most pervasive mental health disorders in the United States, affecting 40 million adults annually. People with an anxiety disorder are far more likely to go to the doctor, or to be hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder, than those who do not suffer from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can develop from a variety of sources, including genetics, personal temperament, and one's environment. The very encouraging news is that anxiety is highly treatable, responding very well to interventions. However, only about one third of those who have an anxiety disorder seek treatment.
The following list of symptoms is common to those who suffer from anxiety.
- Increased heart rate
- Feelings of fear and nervousness
- Rapid breathing (hyperventilating)
- Feelings of panic
- Overwhelming feelings of doom or danger
- GI problems
- Avoidance (avoiding situations that may trigger anxiety)
- Sleep problems
- Inability to focus on anything but the trigger of anxiety
- Inability to control thoughts of worry
- Phobias (unwarranted fear of spiders, social situations, germs…etc.)
How Can I Tell if My Anxiety is Considered 'Everyday Anxiety' or May Be An Anxiety Disorder?
We all experience events in our lives which are in some way uncertain, or concerning, to various degrees. Anyone is likely to experience some level of anxiety, as a quite natural response to such events. For instance, you may experience anxiety, sleep difficulties, or fears in response to a traumatic event. A reasonable fear of a dangerous situation, person, animal, or event is not only normal, but reasonable, appropriate, and healthy. Experiencing embarrassment, or self-consciousness, in an awkward, uncomfortable, social situation is to be expected at times. Worrying about your ability to pay your bills on time, disappointing others, or landing a big promotion, are also understandable, and a natural part of living our lives. None of these is, automatically, a cause for concern.
However, if you experience constant, or especially, unsubstantiated/irrational worry that creates meaningful stress in your life, and interferes with your ability to function as you need to; if you have unreasonable fears that lead you to avoid persons, places, or situations, which actually pose no threat of danger to you; if you experience sudden panic attacks; or if you have nightmares, flashbacks, or numbing related to a traumatic event which occurred months or years in the past; it is reasonable for you to consider the possibility of an anxiety disorder. At this point, it would be wise for you to seek evaluation by your medical doctor, or a professional counselor, to help you with what you are experiencing.
What Are Effective Treatment Options for Anxiety Disorders?
As mentioned above, anxiety disorders are highly responsive to intervention. Be one of the one-third who takes advantage of the help that is available. Some of the most common strategies for treating anxiety include psychotherapy/counseling; medication; and stress management techniques, to name a few. See your doctor or a mental health provider before your anxiety worsens. It is easier to treat if you get help early.