We often use “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably, to describe intense worry or emotional distress. But in reality, there are distinct differences between the two—for example, one is considered a healthy emotion that can be beneficial, while the other is considered an unhealthy emotion that is all-around harmful. Let’s explore these vital differences and make sure you’re managing stress and/or anxiety in your daily life.
What Constitutes Stress?
Stress is a natural response to a situation when demands placed upon a person exceeds their resources. In summary, stress is your body’s reaction to a threat. This threat could be a disagreement that’s creating a rift between you and your partner, traffic standing in the way of you making it to work on time, or even the scalding hot coffee that’s spilled on your lap.
Stress impacts nearly every system of the human body—nervous, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine (controls metabolism and energy levels), gastrointestinal, and reproductive—as well as emotions, making you feel anxious, irritable, overwhelmed, or perhaps fulfilled and motivated. Stress can also influence one’s behavior, causing you to act impulsively or fidget constantly. Stress can act as a healthy motivator when you’re working or making decisions.
That said, there are also unhealthy levels of stress, which can come with negative consequences. If you don’t properly manage stress, you’re at risk of experiencing the following as a result:
- Sleep problems
- Sadness or depression
What Is Anxiety?
You might have noticed that the last item on the list above is anxiety. That’s because if you don’t address the source of your stress, it can turn into anxiety: an often intense, persistent worry about day to day events or situations. Anxiety is a natural response when a person expects danger, marked by apprehensive feelings like indecisiveness, worry, or nervousness.
Anxiety often has physical symptoms, such as tension, increased breathing, rapid heart beat, or sweating. Though anxiety is a feeling that everyone experiences throughout their life, the name “anxiety” is shared by a class of disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5) called “anxiety disorders.” These disorders cause someone to feel anxiety way above the normal, healthy levels that most people feel, causing symptoms like panic attacks.
How Does Stress Turn into Anxiety?
Stress releases hormones that help regulate the body. Prolonged stress, though, can cause an increase in hormones, specifically cortisol, that can develop into a sensitivity for an anxiety disorder.
When someone experiences chronic stress, this can lead to feelings of distress, and can cause someone to start overthinking more or to experience repetitive cycles of worry. Each of these patterns can leave some more vulnerable to anxiety and anxiety disorders, especially if they are not managed in a healthy way.
What Are the 2 Types of Stress or Anxiety?
There are many different diagnoses within the class of anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias or panic disorder. Two of the more common anxiety disorders are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Causes a person to worry excessively about a variety of concerns; usually accompanied by somatic symptoms.
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD): Causes a person to feel afraid or want to avoid social situations where they think they may be scrutinized by others; usually accompanied by somatic symptoms.
Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-lasting (chronic) and evoke different responses based on the circumstance.
- Eustress: A positive response to stress, with benefits like growth, mastery, and fulfillment. Examples of outcomes of eustress are marriage, purchasing a new house, or starting a new job
- Distress: A negative response to stress that can cause potential health risks and psychological maladaptation. Examples include increased risk of heart disease or increased risk of depression
What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Distress?
Anxiety is a normal feeling a person experiences when they anticipate danger. As a result, their body prepares to meet that threat. Because that response deviates from normal functioning, those preparations are called symptoms. Anxiety symptoms can include tense muscles, rapid heartbeat, or faster breathing, among others.
Stress itself is an inherently natural and neutral response to a situation when a demand placed on a person exceeds their energy or capabilities.
Positive stress (eustress) helps reduce boredom and increase interest in optimal performance. Negative stress, also known as distress, is usually what people think about when they use the term “stress.” Distress occurs when a person experiences stress and it has negative physical and psychological effects, including anxiety.
What Are the Differences Between Stress, Anxiety, and Depression?
Depression refers to a range of negative feelings and symptoms that usually affects daily functioning, whereas stress is a response to an identified stressor. Usually, once the stressor is removed, a person’s stress decreases. Both anxiety and depression are not always caused by tangible issues like stress is, and therefore there is no stressor that can be removed to resolve the symptoms.
Depression is often connected to historical personal events, medical conditions, or environmental or genetic factors. Oftentimes anxiety symptoms and depressive symptoms are much alike, both causing symptoms like difficulty concentrating, fatigue, or sleep disturbance. However, the main difference is that anxiety involves persistent worry, while depression mostly involves persistent feelings of sadness.
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How Do You Recognize Stress and Anxiety?
If you are in a situation that feels like it’s asking too much of you and you can’t meet its demands, you might start feeling stressed. Stress affects the way you feel or behave when under pressure, often in a negative way. You might feel overwhelmed or overstimulated, making it difficult to focus.
Anxiety occurs when you’re in a situation and you can’t stop worrying about something bad that you believe is likely to occur. You’ve tried to stop worrying about it, but it feels impossible, and the worry and fear affects the way you think and act. If it’s beginning to affect your functioning at work, school, or at home, it may be developing into an anxiety disorder.
Is There a Stress vs. Anxiety Test to Tell Which Is Which?
The most reliable way to distinguish symptoms of stress and anxiety is to meet with a mental health expert. They will be able to help you break down what you’re feeling, figure out what’s triggering it, and assess what treatment would be the most effective in quelling your symptoms.
Manage Stress and Anxiety Properly
The bottom line is that stress and anxiety can be harmful, if we fail to address and manage them properly. The good news is that you can make some healthy changes and introduce new practices into your life to manage stress and/or anxiety well. For example:
- Do your best to stay positive.
- Accept that there are things out of your control.
- Meditate or perform other relaxation techniques as needed.
- Seek out social support
Additionally, therapy or counseling can help you to manage stress and anxiety, which involves learning how to notice irrational thoughts, changing perspective, finding reliable methods for dealing with anxiety in the moment, and overall reducing anxiety levels. Therapy can also provide us with support and encouragement as we learn to change our perspectives and take better care of ourselves.