The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety -- And How to Cope
By Alexandra Hayes Robinson
“I’m so stressed!”
It’s a phrase we mutter often, a knee-jerk reaction to a brief moment of chaos. It’s a tool for small talk, an alternative to chatting with colleagues about the weather. Sometimes we say “stressed” when what we really mean is “excited,” “nervous” or “concerned.” Sometimes the stress is legitimate. You may be overwhelmed about your increased workload at your job, an interpersonal dynamic in your family or political tensions.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. More than one in four Americans reported that they anticipated more stress at the start of 2023, according to a recent report from the American Psychiatric Association. This is a 5% increase from the start of 2022.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing (more on that momentarily), but as human beings with a wide array of emotions and experiences, it is helpful to know when your stress is actually stress, or when it’s something else. Stress, for example, is often misidentified as anxiety, and vice versa. Understanding the difference between these two terms and being able to spot the signs within yourself is key to finding tools that help you cope.
This Stress Awareness Month, we’re breaking down the difference between stress and anxiety. Let’s dive in!
What is stress?
Stress is inevitable. It can even be good for you! Stress is a physical or emotional reaction to an external challenge.
When you experience stress, your brain triggers a release of hormones that produce the “fight or flight” response. In a life-threatening situation — say, another car runs a red light and you instinctively screech to a stop to avoid a crash. This fight-or-flight response is essential. Stress can also kick you into gear when you need to meet a deadline or solve a problem quickly. In these situations, the feeling of acute stress tends to wear off once the “event” is complete.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is when your body doesn’t leave fight-or-flight mode, even after the external challenge has come and gone. While you can’t prevent stress from happening, you can prevent it from becoming chronic.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is when your body reacts to stress even when there is no external threat. You can think of it as a false alarm. Anxiety typically feels like apprehension or dread, and it can interfere with your ability to complete day-to-day tasks. Feeling anxious is a normal part of life and a normal reaction to stress. Over time, persistent anxiety can have a negative impact on your health and may progress to an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses in the United States, with the most common of the anxiety disorders being generalized anxiety disorder. Common signs of an anxiety disorder include:
- Feeling nervous, wound up, on edge or restless
- Having trouble managing thoughts of fear and worry
- Feeling irritable
- Having trouble sleeping
- Having feelings of panic (sudden attacks of intense fear)
- Being afraid of, or avoiding, certain places or types of places
- Feeling very self-conscious or worried in front of others
- Worrying about being rejected by or offending others
- Worrying about an event days or weeks before it happens
- Having trouble making or keeping friends
- Worrying about leaving loved ones or feeling unable to do so
- Other physical symptoms: heart pounding, heart palpitations, blushing, sweating, trembling, shaking, shortness of breath, choking, headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, muscle tension, or feelings of impending doom
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Unlike stress, anxiety occurs when your body reacts to stress even when no external threat exists. You can think of it as a false alarm. For both conditions, it’s helpful to have an understanding of what situations or thought patterns trigger your fight-or-flight response. That way you can have some in-the-moment strategies available if your feelings start to feel big.
How to cope with stress and anxiety
There are many strategies to help you cope with chronic stress and anxiety so that they don’t pile up and become unmanageable.
For example, if you know that checking your email inbox first thing on a Monday morning causes you stress, you can bring your attention to your breath before you hit the mail icon. (Did you know that 80% of people hold their breath while responding to emails? You might even be doing it as you read this blog right now. Take this moment to lower those shoulders and take three slow, gentle breaths.)
You also can take preventative steps to manage your stress and anxiety. For example, if you find yourself stuck in patterns of rumination, you can try setting aside five minutes of “worry time.” That’s right — set aside some time that is strictly dedicated to worrying. By intentionally giving yourself time to worry, you can “get it out of your system” and have designated time for finding a solution.
How do I know if I need help with anxiety?
Coping with anxiety on your own can be challenging and you may want to consider additional help. There is no shame in needing more support. Each year since 2019, more and more Americans have sought out professional mental health treatment. Psychotherapy (also called talk therapy) and medication are the two main treatments for anxiety, and many people benefit from a combination of the two.