Everyone gets stressed—job deadlines, taking care of family, things not going as planned, busy schedules and long to-do lists. It’s a natural human response to the challenges and unpredictability of the world we live in.
Feeling anxious can be a normal part of life and likely experienced by everyone at some point in their lives. Whether you’re worried about a particular situation at work, nervous about the outcome of a dating relationship or conflict, or fearful of the future after a disappointment, anxiety is a normal human response to stressful situations like these.
All of this being said, it’s important to know the difference between when it’s just stress or general anxiousness and when it becomes a more serious concern. If it’s taken over your life, it’s time to pay attention. For the sake of this article, when we talk about ‘stress’, we are also including mild feelings of anxiousness that might occur as a result of stressful situations versus ‘anxiety’ which is likely more chronic and clinical in nature.
**Disclaimer, we are not medical professionals, and as such, we cannot and are not diagnosing you or anyone with anxiety. This is merely for informational purposes, so please see a medical professional for anything further.**
Is There a Difference?
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between stress and anxiety. This is due to there being many symptoms shared between the two1:
Insomnia / trouble sleeping
Muscle tension / headaches
On top of that, stress can be a common trigger for anxiety, especially if the stress occurs often, is ongoing, or feels out of control. This creates a fine line of where one stops and the other starts.
Yet, there IS still a difference despite many similarities and overlaps. We hope seeing the commonalities, however, validates the difficulty you may be experiencing. It’s not always clear cut, but in the following sections, we are going to break down stress, anxiety, and some differences to help you learn as much as you can.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal bodily response cued by the brain and nervous system, and is usually triggered by a specific event or situation.2 The key here is that it is generally a response to an external cause—a deadline at work, conflict with a friend or partner, busy holiday schedules—and subsides when said conflict is resolved or a situation passes.3 When you feel overwhelmed, your body will trigger the fight or flight response as a way of handling the stress.
Stress can often be managed by things such as:
Moving your body
Resting such as a nap or good nights sleep
Mindfulness, meditation, or prayer
Doing activities that relax you or that you love
Talking to friend or loved one
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a psychological condition that can develop when the stress response occurs too often, lasts too long, or is bigger than the situation would reasonably call for.2 With anxiety, there usually is no specific event or situation that causes the panic. Rather, it’s a person’s specific reaction to stressful situations. Its origin is also internal, not external.
Some strong indicators of anxiety can include3:
A persistent feeling of apprehension or dread
Anxiety that continues after a concern has passed
A response to a situation that isn’t threatening (almost like a false alarm–though still very much real)
While anxiety can also absolutely be managed, at first, it will likely seem impossible and out of control. Basic anti-stress tools and activities (see section above) may not be enough; someone struggling with anxiety may need more robust coping skills and thought pattern changes. If you’re taking relatively good care of your mind, body, spirit, emotions, etc. and are still struggling, it may be a sign of something deeper like anxiety.
Anxiety vs. Stress: The Differences
Now that you’ve learned a bit about stress and a bit about anxiety, we want to highlight some of the main differences. The first being place of origin. Stress is the result of a specific external event or situation whereas anxiety will appear for seemingly no reason and without a triggering event. Second, the length of time the feelings last is important to notice. Anxiety is typically ongoing—lasting weeks or even months—and consistent in nature. Stress, on the other hand, occurs occasionally and only lasts as long as the troubling situation.
The third difference to look at is how easily it can be managed and managed well. While both anxiety and stress are difficult to deal with, stress can often be managed with relaxation techniques, taking care of yourself, and making time for the things and people you love. Anxiety may be eased with some of those, but often needs more robust help and can seem nearly impossible to manage at times. Last, but not least, how is what you’re dealing with affecting your daily life? Stress may make a certain situation difficult to handle while anxiety interferes with your everyday activities making it sometimes impossible to take care of yourself and simply live.
This chart from Calmerry offers a great visual to what we just covered!
If you’re still unsure, here are some questions you can ask yourself. While these aren’t comprehensive nor diagnostic in nature, they may help you better understand what you’re going through so you can get the help you need and deserve.
How long has this struggle been going on?
When did I start feeling this way? Was there a specific trigger or event I can remember?
When does it get worse for me? When does it get better?
Will this feeling go away if a conflict or concern goes away? (fill in blank with your specific situation)
How is what I’m experiencing impacting my day and life?
If you believe you might be struggling with clinical anxiety or other mental health problems, please know that you don't have to go through this alone. We highly encourage you to reach out and get professional help. Don’t know where to start? Check out this resource for guidance. You are worth getting the help you need.
If after reading this article, you believe you’re just struggling with stress or situational anxiety, you are also not alone! And you are still absolutely worthy of getting help. We partner with caring individuals in your area who want to listen, talk, support, encourage and be there for you as you walk through this difficult situation.
No matter what you’re dealing with right now, we hope you always remember, you are never alone!