Stress vs. Anxiety: Knowing the Difference Can Help You Cope

Stress and anxiety share a lot of similarities, especially in terms of their symptomology. People who feel uneasy, nervous, overwhelmed, drained, agitated, tense, or generally upset may use the terms “stressed” or “anxious” interchangeably. Physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, sweating, difficulty sleeping, or jitteriness can also exist with both stress and anxiety. Given how heavily we use the terms stress and anxiety as synonyms for each other, many people actually don’t know the differences between these terms.

Generally speaking, stress is a response to an external cause, such as feeling pressured at work, arguing with a friend, or moving to a new city. Stress is typically described as a short-term problem caused by the body’s natural reaction to something that feels threatening. Stress is a normal part of life. When the external stressor is taken away, the body naturally returns to equilibrium. Nobody likes to feel stressed, but it can be helpful to normalize stress and remind yourself that we all go through it.

In contrast, anxiety usually has an internal origin and can persist for a long time even in the absence of an identifiable stressor. It involves a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread, even in situations that are not actually threatening. Sometimes we feel anxious when there is something stressful in front of us (you may have anxious butterflies in your stomach before you have to give a speech), but the distinguishing characteristic of anxiety that makes it different from stress is the fact that anxiety can still be disruptive for a person even when there is no external cause. For example, you may have anxious butterflies in your stomach before giving a speech, but if you experience chronic anxiety, you may also feel anxious for several days or weeks after the speech.

Another example is to think of stress as a bee sting. When we are stung by a bee, it certainly hurts, we may be upset, agitated, or frustrated. We are stressed for a moment. Our body is responding to a stressful event. Once we are no longer focused on the bee sting, our body will return to equilibrium. On the other hand, anxiety would be like if we had bees swarming around our body at all times every day. We would always feel nervous about the bees circling around us, potentially about to sting us at all times. This would make it very hard to relax, we would likely be sweating, it may be hard to concentrate, and we might be chronically fearful that something negative is about to happen.

Both stress and anxiety can be extremely frustrating but knowing the difference can inform us how to take care of ourselves. If you are noticing some of the shared symptoms of both stress and anxiety, try to think about whether you are experiencing normal stress in response to an external factor or if your symptoms are stemming from internal anxiety even in the absence of a stressor. If you are experiencing normal stress, it can be helpful to talk about it, take breaks from the stressor, remind yourself the stress will pass, slow down, maintain realistic expectations, and perhaps attack the stressful problem head-on.

However, if you are experiencing chronic, persistent anxiety that doesn’t go away, some additional coping resources may be necessary. It may be helpful to begin treatment with a mental health professional. Therapy is a safe, confidential space to examine the relationship you have with your anxiety, learn new coping skills, build healthier thought patterns, and feel supported by a professional trained in managing anxiety. Some people may feel the symptoms of anxiety aren’t bad enough to warrant therapy or they may be reluctant to seek help, but if your anxiety is interfering with living your best life, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional today. Don’t ever let the fear of seeking help hold you back from taking care of yourself. Getting better is worth it!

Most importantly, always remember there are many strategies to help combat the symptoms of stress and anxiety, no matter what level of severity you are experiencing. Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, using a support system, journaling about your thoughts and feelings, setting boundaries, engaging in self-care, eating healthy, getting more sleep, exercising, following a routine, getting fresh air, and learning to say “no” to unnecessary obligations can make a huge difference. With practice, you can empower yourself to take control over your stress and anxiety. Remember that your stress and anxiety did not develop overnight and your symptoms will not go away overnight. But in time, with the right coping skills and support, you will be able to feel like yourself again. Never underestimate your ability to lead a stronger, healthier life.

Written by Lauren Presutti

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