Stress is any demand placed on your brain or physical body. Any event or scenario that makes you feel frustrated or nervous can trigger it.
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease. While it can occur as a reaction to stress, it can also happen without any obvious trigger.
Both stress and anxiety involve mostly identical symptoms, including:
- trouble sleeping
- digestive issues
- difficulty concentrating
- muscle tension
- irritability or anger
Most people experience some feelings of stress and anxiety at some point, and that isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. After all, stress and anxiety can sometimes be a helpful motivator to accomplish daunting tasks or do things you’d rather not (but really should).
But unmanaged stress and anxiety can start to interfere with your daily life and take a toll on your mental and physical health.
Here’s a closer look at stress and anxiety, how they differ, and how to find support for managing both.
The big difference between stress and anxiety is the presence of a specific trigger.
Stress is typically tied to a specific situation. Once that situation resolves, so does your stress.
Maybe you have an upcoming exam that you’re worried about taking. Or you’re trying to juggle working from home with three small children who are competing for your attention. In both cases, there’s a specific root of your stress. Once the exam is over or your children return to daycare, your stress starts to go away.
That doesn’t mean stress is always short-lived, though. Chronic stress refers to long lasting stress that occurs in response to ongoing pressure, like a demanding job or family conflict.
Anxiety, by contrast, doesn’t always have a specific stressor.
While stress and anxiety are different things, they’re closely connected.
In some cases, stress might trigger anxiety. If you’re stressed about a big upcoming move, for example, you might find that you start to feel generally nervous about nothing in particular.
Not sure whether stress or anxiety is behind your symptoms?
Take a step back and think of what’s going on in your life right now. What kinds of things do you tend to worry about? Are they specific threats or events?
Consider car troubles. Maybe you know you really need new tires, especially now that it’s starting to snow. But you can’t afford to replace them just yet.
For the next few weeks, you feel uneasy about driving. What if you slide on a patch of ice? What if you get a flat on your way home from a late-night shift on that stretch of road with lousy reception?
A few weeks later, you have a fresh set of tires and stop worrying about driving to and from work safely. In this case, your nervousness was due to stress, triggered by having old tires.
But maybe you get new tires and don’t really notice a change in your symptoms. You’re still nervous about driving and feel a vague sense of unease that you can’t quite put your finger on. Or, your tires were never an issue in the first place, but you can shake an overall feeling of nervousness about getting on the road. That would be anxiety.
If you can tie your feelings back to a specific trigger, they’re likely the result of stress. But if the exact cause isn’t clear, or your symptoms stick around after the initial trigger goes away, it may be anxiety.
Stress typically happens in response to physical or mental pressure. This pressure might involve a big life change, like:
- starting a new school or job
- having an illness or injury
- having a friend or family member who is ill or injured
- experiencing the death of a family member or friend
- getting married
- having a baby
But stress triggers don’t need to be life-altering. You might feel stress due to:
- having a long to-do list to tackle over the weekend
- attending a big work meeting
- having a looming deadline for a project
Stress and anxiety-related disorders
Stress and anxiety that occur frequently or seem out of proportion to the stressor could be signs of an underlying condition, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This is a common anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable worrying. Sometimes people worry about bad things happening to them or their loved ones, and at other times, they may not be able to identify any source of worry.
- Panic disorder. This condition causes panic attacks, which are moments of extreme fear accompanied by a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and a fear of impending doom.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a condition that causes flashbacks or anxiety as the result of a traumatic experience.
- Social anxiety disorder. This condition causes intense feelings of anxiety in situations that involve interacting with others.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is a condition that causes repetitive thoughts and the compulsion to complete certain ritual actions.
It’s common to experience stress and anxiety from time to time, and there are strategies you can use to make them more manageable.
Pay attention to how your body and mind respond to stressful and anxiety-producing situations. Next time this type of experience occurs, you’ll be able to anticipate your reaction, and it may be less disruptive.
Certain lifestyle changes can help alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety. These techniques can be used alongside medical treatments for anxiety.
Techniques to reduce stress and anxiety include:
Looking for more tips? Check out these 16 strategies for managing stress and anxiety.
It’s best to talk with a mental health professional any time stress or anxiety starts to affect your day-to-day life.
Keep in mind: You don’t need to have a specific mental health condition to benefit from therapy. A qualified therapist can help you identify potential triggers and create effective coping mechanisms to minimize their impact, even if you don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder.
It’s also worth reaching out if stress or anxiety leaves you feeling hopeless, or if you start having thoughts of harming yourself or others.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider asking your primary healthcare professional for a referral.
Or check out our guide to finding a therapist.
Many types of therapy can help with stress and anxiety. A mental health professional can help you find the right approach for your specific symptoms.
Some examples of approaches they might recommend are:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you to recognize anxious thoughts and behaviors and change them into more positive ones.
- Exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing you to certain things that trigger anxiety.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy, which teaches you how to accept and sit with negative emotions.
Depending on your symptoms, they may also recommend medication to help with anxiety symptoms. These may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as sertraline (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil).
In some cases, a clinician might recommend benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium) or lorazepam (Ativan), but these approaches are generally used on a short-term basis due to the risk of dependence.
While some amount of stress and anxiety in life is expected and shouldn’t be a cause for concern, it’s important to recognize when these feelings are causing negative consequences.
If you feel like your stress and anxiety are becoming unmanageable, a mental health professional can help you develop new coping skills.
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