What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

There are many similarities between the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety are both part of the body’s natural fight-or-flight response. It is a fear reaction that can cause one to try to escape (flight) to avoid the danger, or to try to fight the danger (fight).

When we feel threatened, the body releases stress hormones.

Stress hormones make the heart beat faster, and more blood is pumped around the body. You breathe faster and your blood pressure increases.

Both mild stress and mild anxiety can be handled in the same way. Physical activity, a nutritious and varied diet, and good sleep hygiene are a good starting point, but there are other coping mechanisms. We shall return to that.

Similar and different

Stress and anxiety can resemble each other and therefore have some of the same bodily reactions and symptoms. It can be difficult to tell them apart.

Stress is often short-lived and triggered by an external factor – something that can feel like a threat. This could be a deadline at work or that you have argued with a friend. But it can also be something that lasts over time – such as a chronic illness or bullying. Stress can be useful to a certain extent and is helpful if we want to avoid danger or meet a deadline. 

People who are stressed can experience psychological and physical symptoms such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive problems, and sleep problems.

Anxiety is often more long-lasting and it is not always something special that triggers it. The worries are often persistent and exaggerated and do not go away even when a stressor is not present. Anxiety leads to many of the same symptoms as stress: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.

The similarities

There are therefore many similarities between the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

When you are stressed, you may experience:

  • Faster heartbeat
  • Faster breathing
  • Anxious thoughts
  • Mood swings, irritability, or anger
  • The feeling of being unhappy
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Solitude
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea or constipation

When you are anxious, you may experience:

  • Faster heartbeat
  • Faster breathing
  • A feeling of unease or dread
  • Sweat
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nervousness
  • Tension
  • Restlessness

Differences between stress and anxiety

The big difference between stress and anxiety is whether there is a specific trigger present or not. 

Stress is usually linked to a specific situation. When that situation is resolved, the feeling of stress may disappear.

If you are worried and stressed before an exam, it usually resolves once the exam is over. 

However, that does not mean that stress is always short-lived. A demanding job or a prolonged family conflict can lead to chronic stress. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, does not always have a specific stressor.

Sometimes stress can develop into anxiety. Stress is the body’s reaction to a threat, and anxiety is the body’s reaction to stress.

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Self-help

There are many self-help techniques for coping with stress and worries in daily life, such as:

  • Take care of yourself: Get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise regularly to give your body the best starting point to function well.
  • Focus on the positive: Avoid negative self-talk and focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t do. Think about how you have dealt with stressful situations in the past.
  • Participate in activities you enjoy: Do something you enjoy – it can give you a break from stress and worries. Such a break can make it easier to get new energy to deal with the stress that comes.  
  • Use relaxation techniques and meditation: Learning techniques that calm you down can be helpful. It doesn’t take many minutes before you manage to calm down and relax. Learning how to calm a troubled mind can be very helpful. Even just a few minutes can be effective. 
  • Physical activity can help in situations that are perceived as stressful. To go for a walk, cycle, or go for a run. Activities such as yoga and Tai chi can also help to calm down.
  • Talk about your concerns, either face-to-face, over the phone or online. Talk to someone you trust: a friend, partner, family member, or colleague.

When to see a doctor?

Stress and anxiety are not always negative. Both anxiety and stress can be natural reactions that do not last long.

But if you feel stressed or anxious all or much of the time, you should talk to a doctor.

Seeing a doctor will be important if:

  • Anxiety hinders you in everyday life.
  • You use drugs to deal with stress or anxiety.
  • Have irrational fears.
  • Have a significant change in sleeping habits.
  • Have a significant change in eating habits.
  • Have a significant change in personal hygiene.
  • Is depressed for a long time.
  • Engaging in self-harm or thinking about self-harm.
  • Have suicidal thoughts.

References

  1. What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? APA, 2022 www.apa.org 
  2. Kendra Kubala, Everything You Need to Know About Stress and Anxiety, Healthline, 2022 www.healthline.com 
  3. Timothy J. Legg, Stress vs. anxiety: How to tell the difference, MedicalNewsToday, 2020 www.medicalnewstoday.com 
  4. Stress vs. Anxiety: Understanding the Difference, Utah State University, 2023 extension.usu.edu