Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between stress and anxiety, because they share similar symptoms.
Stress is the body’s reaction to pressure or feeling threatened. It’s a response to external factors such as work, finances, relationships, parenting, and day-to-day inconveniences.
Anxiety is a sustained mental health disorder beyond everyday worries. People with anxiety experience feelings of dread or extreme distress, which can be constant and affect their daily lives.
Learn more about the differences between stress and anxiety symptoms, triggers, coping mechanisms, and when to seek help.
Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety have both physical and psychological signs. Some symptoms, including rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, diarrhea, or constipation, can present in both stress and anxiety.
There are, however, some distinct symptoms attributed to each.
Difficulty controlling unease or dread
Insomnia or sleep disturbance
Feeling tense or easily startled
Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
Stress tends to be short term and comes in response to a recognized threat. Anxiety, however, is longer lasting and can sometimes seem as if nothing is triggering it; often the feelings of fear or worry are disproportional to the actuality of the event or concern.
Are Stress and Anxiety Related?
Stress and anxiety have similar behavioral and biological processes. Studies that have looked specifically at key brain structures and mechanisms of fear and anxiety, which are impacted during exposure to stress, noted similar patterns of abnormal brain activity with anxiety and stress.
Causes of Stress and Anxiety
However, it’s clear that some events, emotions, or experiences may cause symptoms of stress and anxiety to begin or worsen. These elements are called triggers.
Feelings of stress are normally triggered by external events in your life such as:
- Big life changes, like getting married or buying a new home
- Being under lots of pressure, like facing work deadlines or preparing for presentations
- Conflict with loved ones
- Not having much or any control over the outcome of a situation
- Having responsibilities that you’re finding overwhelming
- Everyday worries
There might be one large triggering event that causes stress, but it can also be caused by a buildup of small pressures.
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
There are two main types of stress:
- Acute stress is the most common type of stress. Acute stress can resolve itself quickly. It is the body’s response to a recent or anticipated threat or unexpected event.
- Chronic stress is ongoing stress resulting from long-term emotional pressure—for example, a stressful job, an unhappy family situation, or money problems.
Anxiety can present as its own disorder or can be triggered by prolonged or overwhelming stress.
Anxiety triggers can be different for each person, but include:
- A health diagnosis that’s upsetting or difficult
- Caffeine use
- Financial concerns
- Interruptions in sleep patterns
- Parties or social events that trigger social anxiety
- Conflict (in relationships, at work, and at home)
- Public speaking
If you can identify and understand your triggers, it can help determine appropriate coping strategies.
- Start a journal: Write down when you experience stress or anxiety and what you think may have triggered it.
- Work with a therapist: Some stress and anxiety triggers can be difficult to identify, but a mental health professional can help you. They may use talk therapy or other methods to identify triggers.
Stress- and Anxiety-Related Disorders
Stress and anxiety that occur frequently or seem out of proportion to the trigger may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. An estimated 40 million Americans live with some type of anxiety disorder.
People with these disorders may feel anxious and stressed every day and for prolonged periods of time. These disorders include the following:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by uncontrollable worrying. Sometimes people worry about bad things happening to them or their loved ones, and at other times they may not be able to identify a source of the worry.
- Panic disorder is a condition that causes panic attacks, which are moments of extreme fear accompanied by a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and a fear of impending doom.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that causes flashbacks or anxiety as the result of a traumatic experience.
- Social phobia, also known as social anxiety, is a condition that causes intense feelings of anxiety in situations that involve interacting with others.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition that causes repetitive thoughts that cause anxiety, and the compulsion to complete certain ritual actions in an attempt to relieve anxiety.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety
Stress is a short-term state and doesn’t require a formal diagnosis. An anxiety disorder, however, would be diagnosed by a professional according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a handbook used by clinicians to diagnose mental health disorders.
There is no definitive test for anxiety, but if symptoms are present, a healthcare provider will do an assessment about the frequency of feelings of worry or any physical symptoms such as restlessness, feeling tired, having trouble concentrating, irritability, or having trouble sleeping.
Anxiety is a treatable condition. Treatment typically includes talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, or a combination of these.
Though stress isn’t formally treated, self-care practices can help alleviate it. Getting good sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and talking with family or friends can help stabilize a person’s stress levels.
Coping With Stress and Anxiety
Some coping strategies for stress and anxiety include:
- Relaxation breathing: Stress and anxiety can cause shallow, rapid breathing. The simple act of controlled breathing may bring stress relief. Apps are available with guided breathing meditations for stress and anxiety.
- Exercise: A comprehensive review of studies found that regular exercise reduces anxiety symptoms. Yoga is often promoted as a “cure” for stress and anxiety, but it should be noted that studies carried out on the effects of yoga practice have had small sample sizes and lack of control groups.
- Limited alcohol and caffeine: These can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
- Getting enough sleep: Sleep can give you the energy to cope with difficult feelings and experiences.
- Creativity: Engaging in a creative hobby gives your mind a chance to relax. Studies indicate that creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances.
- Music: Listening to slow, relaxing music can decrease your stress response.
- Peer support: This brings together people who’ve had similar experiences to help each other. Many people find that joining support groups to share ideas about how to stay well and connect with others makes them feel less alone.
- Accepting that you can’t control everything: Find ways to let go of worry about situations you cannot change.
When to See a Doctor
Worry is a normal part of life, but when your worry becomes ongoing and disproportionate, it may be time to see a healthcare provider or mental health expert. People with chronic stress or anxiety disorders experience fear that impairs daily functioning.
If you feel that your stress or anxiety is preventing you from living a full life, speak to your doctor.
A Word From Verywell
Stress and anxiety may happen at the same time and can feel intense and overwhelming. It should be reassuring to know that everyone experiences stress and anxiety at some point in their lives.
Recognizing triggers is a good strategy to stay ahead of both. The good news is both mild stress and mild anxiety respond well to similar coping mechanisms.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chronic stress can lead to long-term anxiety and worsening symptoms, as well as other health problems. Stress can also lead to behaviors like skipping meals, drinking alcohol, or not getting enough sleep, which can trigger or worsen anxiety, too.
When a person experiences a trigger, the nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for action. This is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and senses become sharper.
People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping. Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a trigger.