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4 min read

How to Tell the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety, and When to Get Help

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We often use the words stress and anxiety interchangeably, and while they are in a similar wheelhouse, there are some major differences between stress and anxiety. In this article, we'll take a look at both, and explain how one affects the other. We'll also offer tips to help identify whether you are experiencing stress or anxiety, and some strategies to manage stress and improve mental health.

Feeling Stress vs. Anxiety Disorder

Stress and anxiety are both emotional responses, but stress is generally kicked off by an external trigger. For example, a fight with a partner, the death of a family member, or a project deadline may cause a stress response.

On the other hand, anxiety is when you have persistent fears and worries that begin and go on in the absence of a stressor. You can feel the effects of stress and anxiety during difficult periods in your life. However, with an anxiety disorder, these symptoms continue even in the absence of stress, and anxiety disorders can negatively impact your relationships and day-to-day life.

When you feel overwhelmed, it can be due to chronic stress, but to say that it's an anxiety disorder, you will need to have a mental health professional diagnose you. There are a number of types of anxiety disorders, and each may have slightly different cognitive and physical symptoms. Some anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There is a difference between stress and anxiety, but both can lead to issues with mental and physical health.

Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress

Stress and anxiety have many shared symptoms, though they may be experienced in different ways depending on the type of anxiety disorder, as well as the individual. Some of these anxiety symptoms include:

  • Negative emotions such as extreme fear or excessive worry, without an external cause
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Muscle tension
  • Digestive issues
  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability
  • Fatigue

Many of these stress symptoms occur as part of a fight-or-flight response. The difference between stress and anxiety is that with stress, the response can be traced to a particular stressor (even if the response is exaggerated), while anxiety shows these signs without a discernible source of these negative feelings.

Am I experiencing stress or anxiety?

While you can't be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder without a mental health professional, a few questions can help determine whether you are experiencing specific symptoms because of stress or anxiety. Have you been dealing with any issues lately that may lead to intense feelings? Any recent life changes? Or do you find that you have excessive anxiety simply from living your daily life?

While both stress and anxiety can lead to fight or flight response, you can usually identify anxiety as an issue when you don't have a real "reason" or "cause" for feeling stressed. When you have a physiological response and negative feelings without an obvious trigger, or when things are going really well in the present moment, you are probably feeling anxiety.

A note: just because stress can be attributed to a traumatic experience or a demanding job doesn't mean that it can be any less of a problem for many. Some people are more genetically inclined to feel the effects of stressful situations or experience anxiety. Researchers have found neurobiological links, as well as environmental factors at play. Stress and anxiety share both symptoms and potential negative outcomes, since your body's reaction is the same to either.

Tips for Managing Stress-Related Symptoms

Stress and anxiety can feel scary and overwhelming, but the good news is that both stress and anxiety can be treated. There are several treatment options available, including therapy and medication, but there are also some lifestyle changes and coping skills you can implement to try to lower stress levels first. Some of these include:

Get adequate sleep. Poor sleep can contribute to unhelpful thoughts and increased stress reactions. By practicing good sleep hygiene like going to bed on a schedule, keeping your room cool and dark at night, and avoiding screens an hour before bedtime, you can improve your body's reaction to stress.

Get regular exercise. Studies show that getting moderate physical activity most days of the week can help manage the effects of stress and anxiety. Take a brisk walk on your break, or take a gym class that looks fun.

Practice self-care. Self-care can look different to everyone, but some common ways to be good to yourself are practicing mindfulness (deep breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization), limiting caffeine, journaling, and giving yourself grace. By putting a gentle focus on what makes you happy, you may be able to get your body to respond differently to stressors.

When to Seek Help for Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can become problematic and require professional help from a mental health therapist. Untreated and excessive stress and anxiety can lead to challenges in both mental and physical health. Anxiety disorders can cause a person to have difficulty dealing with everyday life, and cause rifts in relationships.

The intense fear of severe stress and anxiety can also lead to depression and alcohol consumption to self-medicate. If you find that panic attacks or other symptoms of stress and anxiety are interfering with your life, you should seek help from a therapist.

Talk therapy is an effective way to manage anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and commitment therapy are common evidence-based practices that can help manage stress and anxiety and get life feeling back to normal. Most people experience stress, and anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues.

Some may be able to get it under control through things like journaling or breathing exercises, but others may require therapy or medication. If you feel that stress or anxiety has your life feeling out of control, don't hesitate to reach out for help.

Therapy for Stress Management in Austin, TX

Stress is a universal emotion for human beings, and we can all use some assistance navigating it at times. Therapy can help when you're feeling overwhelmed.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group our therapists maintain a high level of availability so that you can get the help you need when you need it, including via online therapy

Reach out today and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Austin therapist who can offer you the best coping skills and stress management techniques to help you relax and enjoy life.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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