The Real Difference Between Stress & Anxiety

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On the surface, it can be hard to see any difference between stress and anxiety: after all, they're both the negative emotional experiences that can make you feel exhausted and edgy, steal your focus, and leave you spending your nights sleepless and frantic, trying to calculate whether it's more financially efficient to try to pay off your student loans or just fake your own death. We often use the two words interchangeably, or may even think that they essentially mean the same thing. But confusing anxiety and stress isn't a harmless mix-up, like mistaking Bryce Dallas Howard for Jessica Chastain — figuring out whether you're dealing with anxiety or stress is one of the most important elements in figuring out how to make yourself feel better.

In brief, stress is generally a temporary experience, while anxiety is a sustained mental health issue. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in the U.S., with an estimated 40 million adults dealing with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Stress, meanwhile, is simply your body's reaction to a change or a challenge, which can vary in length and severity.

You may be saying to yourself, "Really? Isn't it bad enough already that I have to deal with my stress and/or anxiety — now we have to start picking apart my problem so we can figure out which one I have? Why does it even matter?" Alas, it does matter; treating anxiety as stress (or vice versa) may not leave you feeling any better, and frankly, don't you deserve to feel better?

Of course, the lines between stress and anxiety are sometimes fairly porous — stress can trigger anxiety, and anxiety can be a symptom of extreme stress. And many symptoms — like muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, and insomnia — can impact people experiencing both problems. But ultimately, knowing which one you're really dealing with can help you feel better faster. So read on, and figure out what you're really grappling with.

1. Stress Is Usually The Result Of External Pressures

The SparkNotes-style version of the difference between stress and anxiety is the stress is a reaction to a problem, and "[a]nxiety is a reaction to the stress," as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes.

This definition can get a little confusing, because people dealing with anxiety are quite often dealing with outside stressors, too. But you can get a good reading on whether you're experiencing stress or anxiety by taking an honest assessment of what you're actually feeling. Do you feel exhausted or overwhelmed by the pressure of dealing with a school course load, work project, or a parent's expectations? That's probably stress. Do you feel a more general sense of fear or unease? Are you more worried about the future, rather than the present? Are you worried about something not too closely related to your life, or even nothing specific at all? That's more likely anxiety. As the UK's National Health Service website defines it, stress is "the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure," while anxiety is "a feeling of unease, worry or fear."

Why This Difference Is Important: Stress often ends once the event or responsibility that is stressing you out passes — and so, if you're genuinely just stressed, a plan for tackling or dealing with the source of your stress may help you feel better. As David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, told Huffington Post, "The key difference [between the two] is the sense of helplessness ... By rolling up your sleeves and tackling that stress, you can feel less helpless.” Stress can often be dealt with in a much more practical manner; whereas anxiety may require counseling, medication, or other professional psychological treatment.

2. Anxiety Keeps Hanging Around After The Problem Is Resolved

None of this is to say that the real world has nothing to do with anxiety — far from it. In my own life, in fact, my current anxiety problem was brought into focus by some very real work stresses. As I attempted to cope with these stresses, I developed a raging case of insomnia, along with a healthy side dish of social phobia. Then, one day, I got a new job. Problem solved, right? I expected to sleep like the dead that night; so I was surprised to find that a whole new set of worries kept me up that night, as well as many nights into my new career.

Though it has been triggered by stress, my problem was now anxiety. This isn't an uncommon trajectory — the National Institute of Health's U.S. National Library of Medicine says, "Stress is caused by an existing stress-causing factor...[while] anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor is gone." So stress can set off a case of anxiety.

Why This Difference Is Important: Yes, anxiety can definitely be triggered by stress, but sustained or chronic anxiety needs to be treated as its own issue, rather than as a by product of stress. You can't alleviate an anxiety disorder with a vacation or a trip to the spa (no matter what some less enlightened people in you social circle may tell you). As Spiegel told the Huffington Post, “With stress, we know what’s worrying us but with anxiety you become less aware of what you’re anxious about [in the moment] and the reaction becomes the problem.”

3. Anxiety Involves Needless Worry

A lot of the symptoms of stress mimic those of anxiety — from trouble sleeping and stomach issues to irritability and inability to focus, they can look awfully similar. However, there is one telltale symptom that signals anxiety and only anxiety: a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, "all anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening." So while "I am worried that if I can't find a new job soon, I won't be able to pay rent this month" could be a stress-related thought, "I am worried that my boss secretly hates me and wants to fire me, and when she inevitably does that, I won't be able to pay rent" is definitely an anxious thought.

Why This Difference Is Important: Knowing that you're dealing with anxiety is important when it comes to getting the proper treatment; the kind of counseling given to someone coping with a great deal of stress will be quite different than the course of treatment from a person suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

4. Panic Attacks Are A Sign Of Anxiety, Not Stress

Like "anxiety," the term "panic attack" gets thrown around in our culture, to the point where many of us might think that a panic attack is simply the state of feeling very panicked. However, a panic attack is actually a very specific experience of heightened fear of discomfort that, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, often involves sweating, trembling, pounding heartbeat, nausea, chest pain, the sensation of choking, chills, and numbness in the hands or face. The National Institute of Health's U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that "a panic attack begins suddenly, and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. Some symptoms continue for an hour or more," and many people go to the emergency room during their first panic attack, because they are convinced that they are having a heart attack or some other deadly health problem — so, yes, it's a very different experience from just feeling a little panicked about getting your work done on time.

Why This Difference Is Important: If you've experienced a panic attack, that's a sign of anxiety — and a sign that you could benefit from professional help.

No matter which issue you're struggling with, you don't have to deal with it alone. Talk to someone you trust about what you're going through, and know that no matter what you have, you can start feeling better.

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