With the exception of a few lucky ones, most of us have moments of stress or anxiety on a pretty regular basis. Stress and anxiety are both common – so common that the terms are often used interchangeably. And they also share a few overlapping symptoms. But despite their similarities, there are actually quite a few differences between experiencing stress and experiencing anxiety. Understanding what makes each of them unique can help you find more effective ways of coping with these emotions and feeling better in the future.
What are stress and anxiety?
Stress and anxiety are part of the natural fight or flight response, and both trigger more or less the same sequence of events within the body: when your brain detects a threat, it floods your body with all sorts of hormones and chemicals, like cortisol and adrenaline, which are meant to get you ready to respond to the situation.
Generally speaking, a rush of adrenaline (sometimes known as epinephrine) increases your heartbeat and breathing rate, contracts blood vessels in order to redirect blood to your muscles, and triggers perspiration (sweating). Cortisol, on the other hand, raises the amount of glucose in your bloodstream and restrains functions of systems that the body doesn’t consider essential during life-threatening situations, like digestion and reproduction. In ideal conditions, these hormones should return to normal levels after the threat passes.
The big difference between stress and anxiety lies in the circumstances that trigger each. In order for the cycle of stress to begin – i.e., for the body to release these hormones and chemicals – there must be a stressor. A stressor is defined as an external event or situation that causes stress. Family issues, physical health problems, and the dreaded “We need to talk” text are all examples of stressors. However, when it comes to anxiety, there is no one specific threat, or stressor, prompting the body’s response.
Anxiety, unlike stress, is rooted in worry, which is what happens when the mind dwells on uncertainty, negative thoughts, and what-ifs. To make matters worse, we usually have little to no control over these things. For example, you may feel stressed about a specific work project, but you feel anxious about what your boss will think about your performance.
A moderate degree of stress and anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they often serve as motivating forces that can help us complete intimidating or challenging tasks. But when either (or both) of these states become chronic, they can start to interfere with your life and take a toll on your physical and mental health.
Symptoms of stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety can affect your mind, body, and social interactions in overlapping ways.
Symptoms of stress can include:
- Irritability or anger
- Increased heart rate
- Headaches and migraine
- Muscle tension
- Digestive issues
- Increased sweating
- Feelings of overwhelm or nervousness
- Trouble sleeping
Symptoms of anxiety can include:
- Feeling restless or on-edge
- Negative thoughts or beliefs that are difficult to control, including panic, fear, and overwhelm
- Irritability or anger
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Headaches and migraine
- Trouble concentrating
- Clammy hands
- Unexplained aches
- Rapid breathing
How to tell the difference between stress and anxiety
Since stress and anxiety share nearly identical symptoms, telling them apart boils down to identifying the underlying issue triggering these feelings. If you aren’t sure whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, take a step back and consider what’s going on in your life right now. Is there a specific event, like an illness or a family situation, that may be triggering your symptoms? Are you worried about the state of the world at large? Maybe you’re feeling the punch of raising prices and wondering if you’ll be able to pay the bills in the near future.
If you find yourself worrying excessively about things that are beyond your control, you may be dealing with anxiety. Keep in mind, though, that anxiety is not always irrational; there are many valid reasons why one might become overwhelmed by worry and rumination. Instead of focusing on whether your feelings are or are not reasonable, a better approach is to take steps to regulate your symptoms to avoid negative consequences in the future.
Coping with stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety are usually the results of external or perceived situations that activate the body’s fight or flight response, so in order to cope with them, you must first identify what’s triggering them. Grounding techniques, like journaling and meditation, can help you relax and distract yourself from anxious thoughts. Taking a walk, calling a friend, and limiting common stimulants like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can also help break the anxiety loop. Some people also benefit from taking effective combination supplements that might help reduce symptoms of stress, like those containing ashwagandha, magnesium, vitamin D, or essential oils.
Keep in mind that if you have extreme anxiety that lasts for more than six months or significantly interferes with your daily life, it’s best to talk with a doctor or mental health professional. This is because chronic stress and anxiety can be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder, a mental health condition characterized by excessive worry and distress about everyday issues. If that’s the case for you, a mental health provider can help you find personalized strategies to manage your situation.
The bottom line
Stress and anxiety are normal biological responses that, in small doses, can serve as great motivators in our lives. But chronic or uncontrolled stress and anxiety can cause serious physical and mental health problems. The good news is that there are little things you can do in your day-to-day life, like getting better sleep, moving your body, and connecting with other people, to help manage your symptoms. And there’s also professional support available for those times when we might need a little extra help.
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