Do I Have Anxiety or Am I Just Stressed?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Different situations and experiences in life can cause great amounts of stress for anyone, regardless of how resilient they are. While stress normally passes once its origin is taken care of, anxiety is a more persistent feeling. Even when life isn’t throwing stressors your way, you may still experience overwhelming anxiety throughout the day and be unable to pinpoint why it is you’re anxious. So, where does stress end and anxiety begin? The answer can depend on the person and the specific situation. Identifying whether you’re experiencing anxiety or stress can help you understand what your next steps in seeking help may look like.

What Is Stress?

Stress is a natural reaction to an event, person, or thing that makes you feel threatened, uneasy, or out of control. This could be something real or imagined. Your mind and body can be negatively impacted by instances of stress, but it’s also designed to handle it effectively. Small amounts of stress can be beneficial because they can motivate you to reach a goal and keep pushing forward. Too much stress, however, can lead to harmful effects on your mental and physical health.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety on its own is a feeling of worry or unease about a situation or circumstance with an uncertain outcome. Most people feel anxiety sometimes, and it’s a normal part of life, just like stress. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is characterized by a constant state of uncertainty and unease surrounding specific things that can be debilitating and differ from normal feelings of worry. There are many kinds of anxiety disorders including:

  • Panic disorder, potentially including an anxiety attack

  • Illness anxiety disorder

  • Social anxiety disorder

  • Generalized anxiety disorder

  • Separation anxiety disorder

Do I Have Anxiety Or Am I Just Stressed?

Knowing the difference between anxiety and stress is important so that you can get the right help. In general, if you can’t identify the source of your uneasy feelings, you may be experiencing anxiety. While stress goes away once you handle a situation or problem, anxious feelings are normally persistent. While both have similar symptomology, the worries that are associated with anxiety are often excessive and can even be unrealistic. 

Anxiety Disorders

All anxiety disorders manifest around distinct situations, and some have detailed general risk factors. Someone with a social anxiety disorder might feel constant unease or intense fear about social interactions. While having a bit of social anxiety may be likely for most, the feelings people with this disorder experience happen on a consistent basis.

For people experiencing symptoms of a social anxiety disorder, every social interaction that they have may leave them feeling nervous or uneasy, and they might tend to avoid these situations to feel safer. This differs from those who simply don’t enjoy interacting with other people. You can find more information on this disorder and other anxiety disorders on the Anxiety and Depression Association site.

Anxiety disorders might not always pertain to something that the person does not enjoy doing. They can be debilitating and keep people from doing things that they love out of the fear that something very unlikely will happen or that they will have to do one specific thing that might ruin it for them. In extreme cases, people with anxiety disorders may even begin to not want to leave their homes out of fear of losing control, fear of something happening to them or loved ones, or behavioral inhibition.

In the United States, anxiety disorders are the most common emotional disorder, but the fact that they’re so common means that there are numerous ways to treat them. Many medical and mental health professionals can answer questions about anxiety for their patients. 

If you have symptoms of anxiety and think that you may have one of the anxiety disorders listed above, it is important to reach out for mental health support. Keep in mind that this article is not a diagnostic tool. However, if you are experiencing any of the signs of anxiety listed below, contact your medical provider to discuss your options. Parents are also able to make an appointment for their children with their general doctor who can refer them to a specialist for potential diagnosis.

Symptoms Of Anxiety

The signs of anxiety often vary from person to person. As outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, some of the symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, and uneasy

  • Panic symptoms

  • Feelings of dread

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Overwhelming worry

  • Hyperventilation or increased breathing speed

  • Intense muscle twitching or shaking

  • Difficulty focusing on anything except the thing that you’re worried about

  • Insomnia

  • A strong desire to avoid certain situations

  • Panic attacks

.

Managing Anxiety And Stress

Stress and anxiety are not managed in the same ways, but many similar coping strategies can be used to assist with both. These can be especially helpful while you wait for an appointment with a specialist who may be able to diagnose you with anxiety. Remember, there is no proven way to cure anxiety disorders, but using some of these skills can at least help alleviate the excessive worry and extreme emotional response that comes with anxiety. 

Regular stress or mild anxiety might be manageable with these techniques but making a plan with a therapist who knows you may help you manage your symptoms most effectively. Moreover, it is important to have anxiety disorders properly diagnosed, so you can get the right treatment. Every person is different, so not every stress and anxiety management technique will work for you. You can try different strategies until you find something that works for you. Consider these:

  • Take time for yourself: Take a moment to step away from the situation and take a few deep breaths. After calming down away from the task at hand, you might feel firmer in going a bit further. If it’s a social situation that is overwhelming you, wait for an appropriate moment or create an excuse to step into another room, like the bathroom.

  • Count to ten: Slowly close your eyes and begin to count to ten. If possible, try combining this technique with the technique above, and you may find even greater success. When you’re unable to physically remove yourself from the situation, counting to ten can give you time to reacclimate to your environment. If ten isn’t a long enough duration, try twenty, or whatever feels comfortable and sufficient. 

  • Try to maintain a positive attitude: If you go into a situation thinking that your anxiety is going to make it a miserable experience and that you’re going to have to leave anyway, then you may be setting yourself up for failure. Try to go into every new scenario with an open mind. 

  • Figure out what specifically causes your stress: If you’re unable to put a name to what is bothering you, then it can be overwhelming, and you might become even more unsettled because it feels out of your control. Take a deep breath and try to calm down and analyze the situation. If you’re able to identify what you’re unsettled by, it can make coping with your symptoms easier. 

  • Take care of your physical health: Taking care of your physical health is important when it comes to improving your mental health. Maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising are some of the many ways you can improve your mental health.

  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and not allowing other worries to cloud your mind and judgment. Try to focus on the here and now.

  • Meditate: People who meditate often report that their anxiety and stress have considerably decreased. This is because meditation is all about slowing down your thought processes and recentering yourself in reality. People who meditate practice placing themselves in the present instead of getting carried away by spiraling thoughts.

  • Talk with someone: It might seem simple but speaking with friends or loved ones about what you’re feeling can make things easier to handle. If you are having an especially difficult time, consider setting up a therapy appointment for yourself.

A licensed therapist can provide a more detailed treatment plan for anxiety once you receive a diagnosis, but these tips can work for those who do not receive a diagnosis or may just experience stress rather than an anxiety disorder. You can also look at the Anxiety and Depression Association or the National Institute of Mental Health website for more information on anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, and how to alleviate anxiety.

What To Do If You Have An Anxiety Disorder

If you’ve been referred to a specialist and received an anxiety diagnosis, then you’re on your way to receiving the treatment that you need. There are a variety of treatment plans for anxiety, but there is no cure for an anxiety disorder. Instead, there are multiple ways to manage them.

Therapy

An effective way that many people learn to handle their symptoms is by following the care instructions given by their psychiatrist or doctor. One of the most common methods of treating anxiety is attending regular psychological counseling sessions with a therapist, who may be qualified to treat many different types of anxiety disorders.

Attending therapy sessions may have previously had a stigma associated with it, but such a stigma is unwarranted. Therapy may be able to alleviate symptoms related to anxiety and depression, so it is often worth trying if you feel like it could help you. 

There are numerous treatment options available for anxiety disorders. These include talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and more. People with anxiety disorders may benefit from one of these treatments, depending on the type and severity of their symptoms. 

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is a type of treatment that can be used to help you talk about your anxiety and fears with a therapist who won’t judge you. They should also be able to offer you more information about anxiety and stress management techniques.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, can help you learn how to think and act differently in situations where you feel excessive fear and other troublesome feelings. CBT is not just used for anxiety but also for other mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, which often occur comorbidly.

Exposure therapy attempts to help you control your fear by exposing you to it on an incremental basis. During this type of therapy, an individual is placed in a situation where they experience intense fear. The therapist then guides them through relaxation techniques, so they can overcome their fear and anxiety. This type of therapy is also well-suited for treating specific phobias.

The National Institute of Mental Health also describes that there are multiple types of antidepressant medicines that may be necessary for the treatment of anxiety, including anti-anxiety medications. They also discuss how support groups may be an effective tool when it comes to the treatment of anxiety disorders, so consider looking into one. You can check out the National Institute webpage for more information on mental health disorders.

In 2019, it was reported that 40.2 million adults in the U.S. attended a therapy session or meeting with a mental health professional at some point during that year. You are not alone in attending therapy sessions, and there is nothing shameful or wrong about speaking with a professional about your concerns and problems, especially if you are experiencing unmanageable symptoms of anxiety.

The first step to beginning therapy is often the hardest step: finding a therapist that you’re able to trust and connect with. Not every therapist is right for every person, so it might take some trial and error to find one that you relate to and who makes you feel comfortable. Therapists want you to receive proper treatment, and they understand that you must find someone right for you. Never let disappointing or upsetting them be a reason why you stay.

Your specialist will likely be able to refer you to a therapist or practice with multiple therapists whom they trust with their patients. While you shouldn’t feel obligated to attend sessions with these specific therapists or practices, they may be helpful starting points for establishing a baseline of what you want out of therapy.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

It can be difficult to distinguish between anxiety and stress on your own. Getting advice from a qualified professional can help you identify which one you may be struggling with. You can connect with a therapist through BetterHelp, an online therapy platform. 

Anxiety can make people want to withdraw from their loved ones. If you have withdrawn yourself from your social circles and have no one to turn to, online therapy can be an effective tool to start interacting with someone again. Managing anxiety is often easier with someone you trust by your side, even if your symptoms do not stem from an anxiety disorder. An online therapist can give you a safe space to discuss what it is you’re facing and equip you with tools to cope with your symptoms.

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Web-based interventions can be viable resources for managing a myriad of mental health concerns. One study found that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for a variety of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders. CBT is a therapeutic framework that teaches people to recognize and confront their negative thoughts and replace them with more helpful thinking patterns.

Takeaway

Anxiety and stress have similarities, and it can be hard to distinguish between the two. If you believe you may need help coping with an anxiety disorder, finding someone to help you through it is vital. An online therapist can provide you with a nonjudgmental environment in which you can open up about how your stress or anxiety is impacting your well-being. Then, they can work with you to manage and overcome it. 

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