11 Differences Between Having High-Functioning Anxiety Vs. Experiencing Everyday Stress

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We all experience stress in one form or another, pretty much every day. And that's actually a good thing. Stress is what motivates us to stay safe, accomplish goals, remove ourselves from unhealthy situations, and so on. But because it can sometimes be a strong emotion, it's often difficult to tell the difference between stress and anxiety.

"It can be easy to confuse them," Dr. Farrah Hauke, a licensed psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona tells Bustle. But there are a few, key differences. "Stress is different than anxiety in that it is usually more situational and can usually be managed more easily," Dr. Hauke says. Whereas anxiety may need to be treated with medication, therapy, or other lifestyle changes.

While both can affect your life in their own way — and they can even play off each other — "it’s important to know the difference between them so that you can ... properly address your symptoms and needs in the most efficacious way," Dr. Hauke says. By recognizing that your stress may actually be a sign of anxiety, you can then take the necessary steps to get the help you need. Here are a few key differences between stress and anxiety — as well as what to do about it, according to experts.


Anxiety Doesn't Always Have A Definite Cause

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When you're experiencing everyday stress, it's often easy to pinpoint the exact cause. If you don't get along with your boss, for example, or you just had an argument with your partner, it'll be easy to "identify the source of your stress," Raffi Bilek, marriage counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, tells Bustle.

"But," as Bilek says, "if you are feeling on edge and can't really identify what is causing it, or you find yourself actually searching around in your mind for something to pin your anxiety on, it's likely you are experiencing disordered anxiety, and should get it checked out by a professional."


Anxiety Can Make It Tough To Concentrate

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Healthy, everyday stress often helps the mind zero in on what needs to be done. And in this way, it can serve as an excellent motivator. (Anyone who's ever banged out a term paper at the last minute knows exactly what I'm talking about.)

If you're simply experiencing stress, it won't likely "get in the way of productivity and well-being," clinical psychologist Andrea Herber, PsyD, tells Bustle. But if you have anxiety, it might start to have a negative impact on your day, cloud your thinking, and generally make life more difficult. When this happens, it might be best to speak with a loved one or a therapist.


Anxiety Can Hold You Back In Life

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Stress may not be the most pleasant feeling, but the everyday kind won't likely cause you to break down or run away. Take a stress-inducing work presentation, as an example. It's totally expected that you'll experience stress in the lead up, as you prepare and wonder about what might go wrong. You might feel nervous and on edge, but you'll use that energy to power through.

Now, look at the same situation, but through the lens of anxiety. If you're about to give a big presentation and can't stop sweating, or you have "a panic attack and cannot step on the stage ... this is maladaptive anxiety," Herber says. And it's something you should definitely tell a therapist about.


Anxiety Can Make You Feel Sick

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Everyday stress also isn't likely to impact your body the way anxiety can. "Pathological anxiety hampers functioning and is debilitating," Herber says. "Anxiety at its worst culminates in a panic attack — a process triggered by the primitive alarm system of the brain (amygdala)."

It can also lead to physical symptoms that just won't go away. As Herber says, "Body tension and muscular tightness (tensing jaw, hands, and tightness in the neck) are key signs, along with physiological changes in the body like sweating, flushing, feelings of nausea," etc.


Anxiety Is Often Ongoing

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With everyday stress, once the stressful situation comes to an end — you learn how to cope with your difficult boss, you and your partner solve the relationship problem, etc. — you'll likely experience an immense amount of relief, before getting back to daily life.

But with anxiety, that relief is less likely to come. "Anxiety is a psychiatric condition, marked by recurrent worry," says Dr. Hauke. "Oftentimes there may not be an objective, identifiable, or 'realistic' trigger for these symptoms," which is why they can go on and on until you seek treatment.


Anxiety Can Be Very Isolating

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Ever notice how when you're super stressed out, you're more likely to reach out to friends or family for support? You might call your mom to vent, text a friend to see if they want to meet up for drinks, or ask your partner to come over and distract you.

With high-functioning anxiety, though, it's common to react the opposite way and turn inward instead. "It can completely change what people are doing, where they are going, and who they are seeing in their lives depending on the type of anxiety," professional counselor Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, RPT tells Bustle. "It can be very isolating and people can feel very alone."


Anxiety Is Often Based In Fear

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To tell the difference between everyday stress and mild anxiety, check to see what's at its core. "Stress and a mild anxiety disorder can certainly look the same; however, stress can be more about frustration while anxiety is about fear," clinical psychologist Dr. Jean Otto tells Bustle. "Both contain worry, but in anxiety disorder the worry becomes difficult to control and it has been present for more than six months. Everyday stress is more manageable than mild anxiety."


Anxiety Can Make It Difficult To Sleep

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While a stress can certainly keep you up at night, it'll likely be easy to get back to sleep once the stressful event has passed. But with high-functioning anxiety, that might not be the case.

"People with anxiety often report having a difficult time turning their mind off, especially at bedtime," Dr. Otto says. "So, their sleep can become disrupted with difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or having restless and unsatisfying sleep."

If you find that you can't shut down at night, and get those recommend seven to eight hours of sleep, it may be a good idea to speak with a therapist. If anxiety is what's keeping you up at night, they'll be able to help you out.


Anxiety Zeros In On Imagined Scenarios

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Whereas stress has a logical trigger, feelings of anxiety, even in someone with high-functioning anxiety disorder, are often based in made up or imagined scenarios. "For example, stress may be worry about meeting a particular deadline. But anxiety is worry that does not go away even when the deadline has been met," licensed psychologist Dr. Vandita Dubey, MSW, PsyD, tells Bustle.

Anxiety can also cause your mind to spiral out of control, sometimes to the point where you start worrying about things that have yet to happen — or might not even happen. "The moment one situation is resolved, they begin worrying about the next thing that could go wrong, and so on," Dr. Dubey says. "Or, they may start worrying about experiencing the physiological symptoms of anxiety."

It's fine to think ahead and prepare for worst case scenarios. But if you're always expecting the worst and daydreaming about how awfully things can go wrong, it may be time to get checked for anxiety.


Anxiety Can Make You Avoid Certain Situations

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Stress isn't necessarily going to cause you to call out of work, avoid a get-together with friends, or skip a networking event. But high-functioning anxiety might.

"The difference between anxiety and everyday stress is really about consequences," John Hamilton, chief clinical officer at Mountainside Treatment Center, tells Bustle. "Many of us experience some degree of stress on a daily basis that can help motivate us to be productive and perform at our best .... [but] anxiety will interfere with everyday activities through avoidance or procrastination."

If you can't seem to leave the house, or find yourself becoming more isolated, anxiety may be to blame. "People should seek help when they start having worrisome thoughts on an daily basis — a common manifestation of anxiety is constant fear — and when their anxiety starts to become very intrusive into their life, interrupting their everyday experience," Hamilton says. "If you can’t bear to face the world anymore, that indicates a big problem with anxiety."


Anxiety Is Usually More Intense

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The difference between everyday stress and anxiety is also often a "matter of degree and interpretation," licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula tells Bustle. "Some people may view a traffic jam as a headache or merely a passing stressor (and just decide to leave earlier for work the next day), while someone else may interpret it as a possibility of being late to a meeting, being viewed as a bad person, or perhaps losing their job."

See the difference? "Same event, different interpretation," Dr. Durvasula says. "And one of these interpretations can result in much more anxiety both physiologically (maybe headaches, muscle tension, racing heart, trouble breathing), cognitively ('I am going to lose my job'), and behaviorally (yelling, driving erratically)."

There's often a fine line between everyday stress and mild anxiety. And sometimes, stress can even cause mild anxiety. But the key thing to remember is, it's all treatable. If you think you aren't handling your stress well, or that you might even have an anxiety disorder, don't be afraid to reach out for support from friends, family, a partner, or a therapist. They can help you figure out better, healthier ways to to cope.