Often, stress and anxiety are terms used interchangeably. And although the two are similar emotional states, there are some key differences between them. Having a better understanding of whether you’re facing stress, anxiety, or a mix of the two, will help you develop effective coping strategies and know when to seek help. Here we’ll take a closer look at the differences and similarities between anxiety and stress, so you can better equip your mental health toolbox with the right techniques.
Defining Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are both natural biological reactions to various triggers in which the body senses danger. Both reactions are normal and can be useful and healthy when they do not occur too frequently or with too much intensity. For example, if you are preparing for a big presentation at work, you may feel stress that inspires you to prepare more diligently than you might otherwise. But what exactly is stress, and how is it different from anxiety?
Stress is a manifestation of your body’s fight or flight response. It is a reaction to external threats and societal pressures, which can cause numerous physical sensations along with changes in mood. For example, stress may cause you to have an elevated heart rate, shortened breath, dizziness, or headache. You might also feel irritable or overwhelmed due to stress. But these symptoms tend to be short-lived, and they will usually resolve once a stress trigger has been relieved.
Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to be triggered by more abstract sources. It’s also more persistent. With anxiety, you may feel an ongoing sense of dread or worry that does not have a clear single source—or it may be linked to an irrational or unrealistic threat. Even still, anxiety in small doses can be a good thing. If you are walking around in an unfamiliar area on your own, you might feel a sense of fear but be unable to identify any clear threats to your safety. This heightens your alertness and keeps you prepared to handle the worst possible outcomes for your situation.
Stress and Anxiety Symptoms
Stress and anxiety don’t look the same on everyone. What may trigger a stress response for some may not affect others. In addition, the symptoms of stress and anxiety may vary dramatically from person to person. You may even experience different symptoms depending on the specific triggers for your stress or anxiety.
Digestive discomfort, including nausea and diarrhea
Changes in appetite
Increased heart rate
Feelings of doom or fear
Feeling “on edge”
The above symptoms are not an exhaustive list. These are simply the most common, and there is significant overlap with the symptoms of stress and anxiety. The biggest differences between the two tend to be in their triggers and their duration. Stress usually resolves more quickly and has a clearly identifiable source (or set of sources). Anxiety is often related to big picture triggers like difficulty socializing, a serious health diagnosis, long-term financial difficulties, or significant life changes.
Where Stress and Anxiety Meet
The line between stress and anxiety can blur quickly. You may start out feeling stress about a particular situation, which later develops into more long-term anxiety. If you tend to feel stress that is out of proportion to a particular stressor, an underlying anxiety disorder may be the root cause of those feelings.
How to Manage Your Symptoms
Whether you are feeling stress, anxiety, or a little of both, it’s important to develop strategies to manage your symptoms in both the short- and long-term. When you feel stressed, the best coping strategies will focus on relaxing both the mind and body to decrease your heart rate and help you feel more at ease. These strategies may include:
Taking a walk, ideally in nature
Using breathing exercises
Talking to a therapist or loved one about your stress
To address chronic stress and anxiety, it is also important to focus on lifestyle changes, which may include:
Limiting your use of caffeine and alcohol, especially in the afternoon and evening
Adjusting your sleep schedule and environment to get more sleep at night
Setting aside more time in your schedule for self-care and hobbies
If you are having difficulty implementing these strategies or pinpointing the exact cause of your stress or anxiety, talking to a therapist can help. You should seek immediate medical care if you have thoughts of self-harm or harming others.
With MeMD, it’s easy to connect to a qualified mental health professional without a physician’s referral. Our platform facilitates virtual visits with licensed providers with appointments available in as few as 24 hours.