While stress and anxiety are related, they’re not the same. Here’s how to know the difference between stress and anxiety, plus some tips on what to do when you identify what you’re experiencing.
Similar Symptoms, Different Causes
Both stress and anxiety can manifest themselves in similar physical symptoms. These may include insomnia, irritability, muscle aches, stomach troubles, and fatigue. Severe symptoms may include significant weight gain or loss, or even heart disease. Stress and anxiety may generate a fight or flight reaction, raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which signals the body to release glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream, and adrenaline, which raises heart rate and blood pressure.
Under ordinary circumstances, hormone levels should return to normal when the external trigger passes. But constant stress keeps this response switched on. That can cause serious health problems, such as insulin resistance, as the body tries to keep up with cleaning out all that extra glucose from the bloodstream. Insulin resistance can lead to weight gain and even full-blown diabetes.
Although stress and anxiety may generate similar symptoms, the source of these symptoms differs. The source of the former is external, while the trigger for the latter is internal.
Stress Has an External Cause
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, but some people are trapped in circumstances that are constantly stressful, which affects their health more severely.
External factors generate stress. This stress can arise from sudden changes in circumstances, seemingly impossible demands, or real or perceived threats to a person’s well-being. For example, job deadlines or relationship problems, financial concerns, or frightening events such as car accidents can all generate stress. Stress can be a short-term problem that resolves when the stressor departs or a chronic reaction to intractable problems such as poverty, discrimination, disability, or abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder can haunt its sufferers for years following wars, violent attacks, or childhood abuse.
Internal Factors Generate Anxiety
By contrast, excessive worries that persist even when there is no immediate stressor present define anxiety. Unlike stress, which people experience in reaction to external triggers, persistent anxiety is defined as a mental illness, an internal problem. Anxiety is a reaction to stress, but it sticks around even in non-threatening circumstances.
Anxiety disorders are common. According to the American Psychological Association, 31 percent of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
How To Tell If You Are Experiencing Stress or Anxiety
Learning how to know the difference between stress and anxiety is important so that you can choose the proper response to address what you’re experiencing.
It’s possible to manage stress with tactics like deep breathing, meditation, exercise, dietary improvements, and better sleep habits. Stress should ease when you finish that big project, resolve an argument with your spouse, or find your lost phone. If it doesn’t, you may be experiencing anxiety, or you may need to consult a medical professional for a physical exam and help with identifying other coping strategies.
Managing anxiety requires a medical mental health approach. Anxiety is an excessive reaction to stress. While everyone who has lost a loved one, broken up with a partner, or faced a major final exam experiences stress, a person suffering from anxiety has an obviously outsized reaction.
Moreover, most people who are stressed can keep going, working their way through it. Anxiety, however, can be so bad that it makes it impossible to function normally. People suffering from severe anxiety may be so consumed by worry that they are unable to perform normal daily activities or meet minimum expectations at their job.
Complicating matters, anxiety may include worries about things that haven’t even happened yet or things that don’t exist, like a monster under the bed. Even though there’s nothing going on that should be causing stress, an anxious person suffers near-constant feelings of dread or apprehension.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Generalized anxiety disorder is the most commonly diagnosed form that this mental illness can take. Diagnostic manuals describe it as excessive worries that occur more often than not over a period of at least six months. The depth of the feelings of worry or apprehension are substantially out of proportion to actual circumstances.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include feeling on edge or restless, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, fatigue, and difficulty controlling feelings of worry. Other common anxiety disorders include:
- Panic Disorder: Symptoms of panic disorder include heart palpitations, shaking, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea, and a fear of dying. Panic disorder involves recurring panic attacks that involve these and other symptoms, adding up to overwhelming distress.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involves unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and the reactions to those thoughts.
For example, a person may have persistent intrusive worries about germs, and they react to those thoughts with excessive handwashing. A person suffering from OCD finds temporary relief by engaging in compulsive, ritualistic behavior, such as cleaning, counting, checking on things (Did I lock the door? Did I turn the iron off?) to make the thoughts go away. A person with OCD becomes more anxious if they can’t perform these rituals.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: People suffering from social anxiety disorder become overwhelmed by extreme feelings of self-consciousness at the prospect of ordinary social interactions and can feel paralyzed by fears of embarrassing themselves. Fear of public speaking is an extremely common example of this disorder at work, while other people can be so impaired by this disorder that they avoid other people altogether.
- Phobias: Phobias are specific fears, such as being extremely afraid of flying, insects, or heights, that are categorized as forms of anxiety disorders.
- Separation Anxiety: Well-known to parents of small children, separation anxiety can also affect adults. Separation anxiety among adults can be a fear that something bad will happen to a loved one if they are out of sight or away for even a few seconds.
- Drug-Related Anxiety Disorders: Some medications can cause feelings of anxiety, and those who abuse drugs or who are in withdrawal from addictions can become extremely anxious.
- Selective Mutism: This is a rare anxiety disorder where a person with normal speaking skills, usually a child under five years old, responds to certain social situations by failing to speak. Parents, teachers, and doctors usually find out about this disorder when a child who speaks normally at home fails to speak at school. These children may exhibit extreme shyness, clingy behavior, and social anxiety that may result in tantrums.
These symptoms of anxiety disorders require professional intervention from a licensed mental health provider. When stress is the issue, Arise Foundation offers an evidence-based life skills curriculum for adults that address issues such as stress management, anger, and conflict. Contact us to learn more about how our curriculum materials can help adults learn coping skills.