Anxiety vs stress: 5 ways to tell the difference

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Written By Margonoe Tumindax

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Stress and anxiety are considered to be normal, but can be overwhelming for some. People may often use the terms interchangeably as they have similar symptoms such as restlessness and muscle tension. But both these conditions are actually our body’s reaction to danger or threat, and a natural part of the fight-or-flight response. There are some key differences between anxiety and stress that you should be aware of, as they will help to find the right management plan for you.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal and adaptive reaction that helps us to respond to perceived threats or challenges, says psychologist Mehezabin Dordi. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come, often accompanied by physical symptoms like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and tension. Physiologically, anxiety often involves the activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response.

Anxiety is a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

It prepares us to take action when facing a stressful situation. However, when anxiety becomes excessive, uncontrollable or persistent even in the absence of an actual threat, it can significantly interfere with a person’s daily functioning and well-being. Anxiety can manifest in various forms, such as social anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety can present itself through a variety of combination of symptoms.

• Excessive worry or fear about everyday situations
• Restlessness or feeling on edge
• Increased heart rate
• Rapid breathing
• Sweating
• Muscle tension
• Trembling
• Shaking
• Difficulty in concentrating
• Irritability
• Trouble sleeping or staying asleep.
• Avoidance of situations that trigger anxiety.

What is stress?

Stress is a natural reaction designed to help us cope with threats or pressure. When faced with stress, the body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, triggering the fight-or-flight response, explains the expert.

Stress can arise from various sources, including work, relationships, financial issues, or major life changes. While some stress can be motivating (eustress), excessive or prolonged stress can negatively impact physical and mental health (distress), leading to issues like anxiety, depression and various health problems.

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What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress can be spotted through a range of symptoms that affect both the body and mind.

• Headaches
• Muscle tension
• Fatigue
• Upset stomach
• Chest pain
• Irritability
• Restlessness
• Feeling overwhelmed
• Racing thoughts
• Difficulty in concentrating
• Forgetfulness
• Negative thinking
• Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
• Social withdrawal
• Increased substance use

What are the differences between anxiety and stress?

1. Nature of response

Stress is a response to external pressures, demands or challenges. Stress can be short-term and is often a reaction to a specific situation or event. It typically diminishes once the stressor is removed or managed, says Dordi.

Anxiety is a reaction to stress that persists even in the absence of an immediate stressor. Anxiety can linger and be more prolonged, creating a sense of unease and worry that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific situation.

Anxious woman
Anxiety often stems from internal worries, perceived threats or irrational fears. Image courtesy: Adobe stock

2. Triggers

Stress arises from external factors or stressors such as work deadlines, exams, relationship issues or financial problems.

Anxiety often stems from internal worries, perceived threats or irrational fears that may not have a clear or immediate source. Anxiety can sometimes be triggered by stress, but can persist beyond the resolution of the stressor.

3. Duration and persistence

Stress is typically short-term and related to specific events or situations. Once the stressor is alleviated, the stress tends to diminish.

Anxiety can be long-lasting and persist even when the cause of worry or stress is unclear or resolved. It tends to linger and may not vanish easily, impacting daily life functioning.

4. Impact on the body

Stress is often associated with immediate physical responses such as increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension and a fight-or-flight reaction.

Anxiety similarly exhibits physical symptoms like increased heart rate, muscle tension, and sweating. However, these symptoms might persist over a longer period and might not always correspond to an immediate threat.

5. Impact on functioning

While stress can impair focus and decision-making temporarily, it might not significantly interfere with day-to-day functioning once the stressor is managed or removed, says the expert.

Anxiety has a greater potential to interfere with daily life, affecting relationships, work and social activities due to persistent worry, fear or avoidance behaviour even when there is no immediate threat.

Understanding these distinctions can help in recognising whether you are experiencing stress due to specific factors or if there might be a more persistent issue related to anxiety that needs management strategies.

Can stress turn into anxiety?

Yes, stress can potentially evolve into anxiety, especially when it becomes chronic or overwhelming, says Dordi. Prolonged exposure to stress without effective coping mechanisms or resolution of the stressors can lead to increased feelings of worry, apprehension, and fear. Over time, this persistent stress response can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.

Continual exposure to stress hormones like cortisol can affect the brain’s functioning, altering the way it perceives and responds to stress. This can lead to a heightened state of arousal and a more sensitive stress response, potentially transitioning into anxiety symptoms that persist even in the absence of the original stressor.

However, not all stress leads to anxiety. Some may experience stressful situations without developing anxiety disorders. It often depends on various factors, including individual resilience, coping strategies and the duration and intensity of stress experienced.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques, engaging in physical activities and self-care activities can help to reduce stress and anxiety.

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