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Anxiety vs Stress: What is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety is key because it helps us manage our response and approach to the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s enough overlap between the symptoms that it can be difficult to distinguish whether we’re under an undue amount of stress or suffering from a bout of anxiety. For that matter, it’s tough to know if our unmanaged stress is turning an unhealthy corner into poor mental health.

So, having a clear understanding of the difference is the first step in knowing how to relieve stress and anxiety.

What is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Stress can be either positive or negative. Feeling pressure to finish a job on deadline, study for a test, or achieve a goal we’ve set is very often positive. In these cases, a little bit of stress helps us perform.

Too much stress, though, can negatively impact our lives by interfering with sleep patterns, make it difficult to focus on work, or even simply relax at the end of a day.

What’s important about stress, which is the body’s response to a threat or an ongoing situation, is that it’s usually short-term. If we can identify what’s disrupting our life, we can generally figure out ways to lessen the pressure, solve the problem and see the symptoms fade away.

With anxiety, difficult and unsettling symptoms do not disappear after the threat or stressful situation has been neutralized.

The worry, fear, insomnia and anguish stick around, creating a mental health disorder that can significantly impair a person’s professional, personal and social life for up to six months or longer.

What are the Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety?

It’s not uncommon for people to look at all the stress in their life and just “shrug it off,” as if there’s nothing that can be done.

However, the symptoms of stress, especially for individuals that lead sustained, pressure-filled lives, can develop into a number of health issues like a gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure and an increased risk of stroke or heart attack.

People experience the symptoms of stress in different ways, but there is a common thread when it comes to many of them.

Common Symptoms of Stress Can Include:

  • Tension headaches
  • Neck, shoulder and back pain
  • Problems getting restful sleep
  • Feeling exhausted, lethargic or weak
  • Decreased libido
  • Excessive worry
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • An inability to “quiet the mind” due to excessive worry
  • Forgetfulness
  • Problems focusing on one situation
  • A sense of being constantly overwhelmed

Of course, some of these symptoms may be a normal response to stress, especially if they’re fleeting. We can sometimes identify what’s causing our stress by recognizing events, situations or people that induce the symptoms to begin, and when they abate.

When we don’t work on lowering our stress levels, the risk of developing poor mental health increases. Unaddressed stress can lead to bouts of depression or evolve into anxiety disorders.

In fact, anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adults in the U.S. every year, making them the most common type of mental health issue in the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

The hallmark of anxiety is that the fear is not in proportion to the reality of a given situation, event or problem.

Intense anxiety can really cripple a person for long periods of time, as they deal with the warning signs.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety Often Include:

  • Uncontrollable worry
  • Constantly on edge or easily startled
  • Difficulty controlling emotions and mood
  • Sudden dizziness or lightheadedness in stress filled moments
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains and rapid heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Muscle tension and body aches
  • Insomnia and trouble sleeping
  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • An inability to manage symptoms to the detriment of employment, having significant relationships, or feeling unable to function socially

Anxiety vs Stress

How to Relieve Stress and Anxiety?

Looking for quick fixes for how to relieve stress and anxiety is normal. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to other problems, like self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

Along with the risk of developing a substance use disorder, alcohol and many other drugs are depressants. While drinking might make a person feel better in the short-term, alcohol can disrupt the brain’s natural chemistry and make anxiety and stress even worse.

Though it’s not always as simple as it may seem, one of the best ways to manage stress is to practice healthy living.

Learning how to deal with stress and anxiety includes introducing routine habits like some of the following:

  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fiber, vegetables and lean proteins
  • Practice moderation or abstinence from alcohol and drugs
  • Find ways to volunteer that are meaningful, even if it’s just once a month
  • Enjoy hobbies, such as reading, going to the movies, hiking or any positive, healthy pastime that interests you
  • Find a confidant in a friend, a loved one, a family member or a counselor with whom you can speak to and talk about things that are troubling you
  • Meditation for anxiety and stress has shown to be extremely effective at calming the symptoms

Treatment for Anxiety Disorders

Many of the ways to cope with stress are useful for managing anxiety as well. Living as healthy a lifestyle as possible can lessen the risk of anxiety.

However, treating anxiety disorders may take another level of care, such as seeing a psychiatrist, taking prescription medications or a combination of both.

Stress and Anxiety Pills

There are no magic stress and anxiety pills. Antidepressant medications can definitely be useful for treating the symptoms of anxiety in some people. They usually take several weeks to a month to take effect, but they can be taken for long periods of time, if not permanently.

A physician may prescribe stronger drugs, like benzodiazepines, to manage severe symptoms of anxiety. However, there is the risk of developing a dependency and these should only be used under the care of a doctor and on a temporary basis.

Counseling and Therapy for Anxiety

Counseling with a licensed therapist or a psychiatrist is incredibly helpful for people struggling with an anxiety disorder. In counseling, people can learn to manage their behavior and response to anxiety with approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

From time to time, we all have to take a moment, evaluate our lives and make changes so we can better manage and cope with stress. If that feels impossible and even normal social situations seem overwhelming, it may be time to seek help for stress and anxiety.


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