Most people experience some stress as well as anxiety at some point in their lives. Oftentimes the two terms are used interchangeably. However, there’s truly a fine line between the two, and knowing which you’re currently dealing with can help you find the right ways to cope and eventually feel better. It’s important to differentiate between the two, because frequent bouts of anxiety could hint at a bigger problem.
Determining whether you’re dealing with stress or anxiety can help you find ways to cope.
So how do you know the difference between stress and anxiety? This can be challenging because both can have similar mental and physical symptoms, ranging from fatigue, sluggishness, and difficulty sleeping to anger, irritability, physical discomfort and more. And while both are emotional responses, stress is typically caused by an external trigger while anxiety is your internal reaction to stressors, characterized by persistent, excessive worries that won’t go away even in the absence of a trigger.
Caused by a variety of external triggers, stress is something many of us deal with at different points in our lives. The trigger can be short-term, such as a work deadline, rush hour traffic or a fight with a loved one. Triggers can also be long-term, such as facing a long illness, the loss of a loved one, being unable to work or dealing with discrimination. We must learn to manage the stresses in our lives and eliminate, or at least minimize, our triggers, because if we ignore feelings of stress and experience a persistent state of being triggered, our health can suffer in many ways.
Stress is a response to daily pressures or a threatening situation, and it may contribute to:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease and stroke
- decreased immune defenses
- stomach problems
- poorer brain functioning
Anxiety is a person’s specific reaction to stress and stressful situations; but unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. Stress is a common trigger for anxiety, which can explain why the two are often confused. In more severe cases, it’s possible that anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder, the most common mental health issue in the U.S. Some symptoms of anxiety can be mistaken for stress, but serious anxiety symptoms such as panic attacks, where people experience symptoms like those of a heart attack, are not related to stress.
Common anxiety symptoms include:
- Feeling powerless
- Chest pain
- A sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
How to Cope
Learning to cope with stress and anxiety can help you feel stronger and more hopeful. There are many things you can incorporate into your normal routines to help you manage stress as well as anxious feelings. The coping mechanisms can overlap and be helpful to address both stressful situations and anxiety as well. Some of the most beneficial coping techniques include:
- Physical activity
- Breathing exercises
- Practicing gratitude
- Eating healthy
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Try the Calm | Mindfulness Tools with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
You may also find comfort in sharing your feelings with loved ones. Many times you’ll find that you’re not alone — and that knowledge can help alleviate the loneliness that often accompanies stressful and anxiety-inducing situations. Leaning on your support system is never a bad idea when you’re experiencing stress or anxiety.
When to Seek Help
If you feel overwhelmed and your coping mechanisms aren’t helping, it may be time to find a mental health provider to help you manage your stress or anxiety effectively. It can feel scary or difficult to seek help for the first time, but keep in mind that both stress and anxiety are common, and both are treatable.
Stress tends to be short term and in response to a recognized threat, while anxiety can linger and can sometimes seem as if nothing is triggering it. It’s important to know how to identify and differentiate signs of stress and anxiety so you can find the help you need when you need it.