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Stress vs. Anxiety

Your heart pounds harder, your stomach tightens into a knot, you imagine the worst possible outcomes. Are you experiencing stress or anxiety?



Is Stress the Same as Anxiety?

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Understanding the signs of anxiety versus stress can help young adults better cope with their experiences and identify when to seek mental health treatment. 


The main difference between stress and anxiety is where the trigger for the tension arises. Stress is the body’s short-term response to a perceived external threat. It tends to arise as a result of something specific, like an event or a life change. After the threat has passed, so does the stress response. Stress can be chronic and ongoing, but it’s considered the result of external situations. 


However, stress can sometimes stick around and turn into anxiety. Anxiety is the body’s internalized response to stress. Anxiety is characterized by a chronic and heightened state of hypervigilance and fight or flight mode—even when there’s nothing specifically stressful to point to as a cause. Someone experiencing anxiety often feels a pervasive but vague sense of unease, as though a threat might occur at any moment.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 30% of U.S. adults will likely experience a least one anxiety disorder in their lives.

Common Signs of Stress

Stress is generally caused by external situations. These can include things like relationships, the pressures and responsibilities of being in school, or big changes like a move or death of a loved one.


Stress, when kept in check, can be motivating and help people accomplish important tasks. But stress can become overwhelming and turn into an anxiety disorder if it’s left chronic and untreated.


Signs of stress are both mental and physical and can include:

·         Irritability or anger

·         Digestive issues

·         Fatigue

·         Unexplained pain

·         Difficulty sleeping

·         Symptoms like increased heart rate, sweating, and shakiness


Even if you’re experiencing stress due to an external situation, therapy can be helpful. A mental health professional can provide tools for coping with stressors and relieving tension before it escalates into an anxiety disorder.


Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder

An anxiety disorder such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) typically consists of distressing anxieties about everyday situations. This includes excessive, perseverating worries about big things like relationships, grades, finances, career, and health. It can also include worries about smaller things, like being obsessively nervous about running out of gas on a road trip.


An anxiety disorder is more than just worrying, though. With anxiety, the nervous system is always on high alert mode. The focus of the anxiety tends to jump around frequently, resulting in a constant state of unease.


Anxiety symptoms are similar to those of stress. They include:

·         Persistent, excessive worry about everyday situations

·         Physical symptoms like sweating, shakiness, and increased heart rate

·         Irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and other chronic pain

·         Difficulty sleeping

·         Fatigue

·         Muscle tension

·         Restlessness or feeling “cagey”

·         Irritability or anger


Other anxiety disorders can include social anxiety, phobias, and panic disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma can develop from untreated anxiety. While each has different characteristics, they all share a high level of constant nervous system activation and worrying that does not correspond to the actual level of threat present. If you’re experiencing these symptoms of anxiety on an ongoing basis, it’s important to consult a mental health professional and explore treatment options.


How Does Stress Turn Into Anxiety?

Stress is a normal and healthy response to external stimuli that require extra attention or care. But stress can become chronic. And when left untreated, it can have severe long-term effects on the nervous system. It can even cause what people sometimes think of as a nervous breakdown.


Stress is often a trigger for anxiety, and that anxiety can turn into a disorder. Stress typically turns into anxiety when someone’s ability to cope with their stressors become overwhelmed. Experiencing too many stressors, or stressors that continue for a long period of time, rewire a person’s nervous system toward chronic anxiety.


Part of the reason for this nervous system rewiring is that the body produces more stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. The rise in these hormones help people deal with the threat in the short term. But over a longer period of time, stress hormones can be a factor in causing anxiety disorders.


Coping Skills for Anxiety and Stress

Both stress and anxiety can be sneaky. The symptoms can start out slow and manageable at first and then careen out of control. And many people are so used to being stressed that they don’t consider treatment until their symptoms become very distressing. Lifestyle changes can help reduce the symptoms of both stress and anxiety, especially when the symptoms are still relatively easy to manage.


Reduce Stressors When Possible

If you can control the stressors in your life, try to make changes to reduce or eliminate them. The changes don’t have to be big in order to make a difference. For instance, if you find yourself overly stressed by social media, try out a short digital detox.


“For young people, the adolescent brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. As a result, the negative effects of social media and technology may have a greater impact on this age group.”

Additionally, you can integrate beneficial activities into your life to counteract the impact of stressors you can’t change. For example, adding a short 15-minute bike ride or walk to your busy day can give you a break and a much-needed boost of sunshine and exercise. Getting enough physical activity can help move cortisol and adrenaline through the body and lower stress levels. But too much physical activity can also increase stress hormones. Finding a healthy balance of enjoyable physical activities, such as weightlifting, dancing, walking, or biking, can soothe anxiety symptoms.


Spend Time in Nature

Spending time outside in nature can improve your well-being. It decreases stress and anxiety by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, physical tension, and stress hormones such as cortisol.


Get Enough Sleep

Poor sleep is linked to negative health outcomes, including higher levels of stress and anxiety. Not getting enough sleep can lead to increased blood pressure, cortisol, heart rate, anxiety, irritability, sadness, and anger. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help reduce symptoms of stress.


Seek Therapy with Anxiety Specialists

Seeking treatment for chronic stress or anxiety can make a huge difference in your ability to cope and manage your symptoms. It will help you learn ways to reduce your anxiety, feel less alone, and cultivate self-compassion.


Information Courtesy of Newport Healthcare


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