Stress vs Anxiety—What’s the Difference?
Everyone experiences both stress and anxiety. They are part of the body’s fight or flight response to situations we interpret as dangerous or threatening. Though they help us stay safe, stress and anxiety can leak into our everyday lives and become long-term issues.
One way to deal with stress and anxiety is to know which one you’re experiencing, or if you’re experiencing both. Let’s take a look at the causes, effects, and similarities and differences between the two.
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay
Stress is an emotional and physical response to an external incident or situation, one that is identifiable. Short-term stressors include everyday annoyances like missing the bus or breaking a dish.
Other causes of short-term stress are more significant, like a big work deadline or a minor accident or injury. But all have a limited duration. You eventually catch the next bus or the injury heals.
Long-term stress is still caused by external events, but those events don’t resolve quickly, or at all. Chronic illness, an unsafe environment, job loss, and divorce are all stressors that have no definite endpoint.
Stress causes physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat and breathing, irritability, nausea and other digestive issues, dizziness, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and disrupted sleep.
If the stress is short-lived, the symptoms often resolve when the perception of threat or danger has passed. Long-term stress can lead to lingering symptoms including fatigue, muscle pain, loneliness, headache, changes in appetite and sex drive, and overall unhappiness.
Your body’s response to acute stress happens very quickly. At the onset of stress, the body releases adrenaline to help fuel a rapid response. When the stress is ongoing, the hormone cortisol is released.
Cortisol keeps your body primed to deal with a perceived threat. Both adrenaline and cortisol serve a purpose, but too much for too long can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and weight gain.
Anxiety, like stress, is a physical and emotional response to some form of a stressor. The same forces that cause stress, including short-term daily life stressors and long-term external stressors, can pave the way for anxiety.
Anxiety can be thought of as the internal creation of additional stressors. The symptoms can be much the same as those of stress, but the trigger may be ill-defined or missing entirely.
Anxiety can take many, many forms. All are unpleasant. Persistent symptoms that significantly disrupt your life may be signs of an anxiety disorder. There are many anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Anxiety disorders vary in type, severity, and common symptoms. The causes of anxiety disorders are as varied as the disorders themselves. Some have no clear cause; others are caused by a traumatic event or long-term stress.
Experts have many different theories about the cause of anxiety disorders. Some include genetics, brain chemistry, substance use, and a variety of medical conditions.
There’s no easy way to determine if your anxiety has risen to the level of an anxiety disorder. If you have persistent anxiety you should see your doctor.
Anxiety symptoms may be very similar to those caused by stress. Symptoms may also include issues ranging from chest pain to trouble concentrating, shaking, or blushing.
Anxiety is often marked by excess, uncontrollable worrying, exaggerated fears, and a feeling of dread. Symptoms can mimic those of other conditions and vary widely from person to person. You may experience insomnia or drowsiness, chills or sweating.
The effects of experiencing anxiety on your body can be similar to those produced by stress including an increase in both adrenaline and cortisol. The presence of an overabundance of these hormones can pose the same dangers as stress—increased risk of high blood pressure, weight gain, and heart disease.
Persistent anxiety can also result in depression, a weakened immune system, social isolation, and substance abuse.
The Differences Between Stress and Anxiety
Both stress and anxiety are perfectly normal parts of life. We all experience them to some degree. You can’t avoid every stressor and everyone worries once in a while.
But long-term stress and persistent anxiety can be hard on your body. Even very normal emotions and body processes, when extreme or extended, can disrupt your hormonal balance, sleep patterns, diet, and overall well-being.
We sometimes think of anxiety and stress as synonyms, but they are separate entities. Stress is caused by external factors. They may be short-term or long-term, but once they are removed the symptoms of stress subside.
Anxiety is a more internal process. A stressor, brain chemistry, trauma, or something else entirely causes some people to have symptoms similar to those of stress without a trigger.
Stress symptoms, though not universal, tend to be recognizable and the stressor identifiable. Anxiety symptoms are extremely variable and can mimic other disorders or conditions. Persistent anxiety can escalate and become an anxiety disorder.
Calming Stress and Anxiety
It’s sometimes hard to tell which came first, the stress or the anxiety. It doesn’t always matter. Day to day stress and anxiety are often self-treated naturally with physical activity, breathing exercises, or meditation. Some people find soothing rituals that help them reduce stress and calm anxiety, like brewing a cup of tea or going outside for some sun.
We live in a stressful world, even when we haven’t spent over a year dealing with a pandemic. Self-soothing may work well for you, but if it doesn’t you’re not alone.
It’s extremely common to need help coping with stress or anxiety. In fact, anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the U.S.
Stress and anxiety are not the same, but both are, to some degree, unavoidable. That doesn’t mean they are not treatable or that you should expect yourself to deal with them alone.
Talk with your doctor about how you’re feeling. You can work together to find natural remedies or other treatments that are right for your situation.