While pretty much everyone gets stressed out, not everyone has an anxiety disorder — though it can be easy to confuse the two. Even in an era that’s (comparatively) enlightened about mental health conditions, stigma can still mean that some people don’t get help when they need it. If you’re feeling chronically worried, it’s important to find out whether your feelings are stress-induced, or if you are dealing with a mental health condition. No matter what the reasons are, it’s critical that you don’t minimize your distress. To that end, it can be helpful to know the signs that your stress is actually a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
If you're wondering if you might have an anxiety disorder, Wilson notes that, though the symptoms of stress and anxiety are similar, anxiety symptoms tend to persist over time — even after a trigger, or stressful event, is over.
"Generally, stress is a reaction to pressure or a threat, meaning a response to an external cause, such as a tight deadline at work or having an argument with a friend, and typically subsides once the situation has been resolved," Wilson says. "In contrast, anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent feelings of uneasiness, fear, worry, or unease that do not usually end after a concern has passed. Ultimately, anxiety disorders can cause disruption in everyday life and routines."
While stress can be a response to a perceived threatening situation, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety is defined as an upsetting (and sometimes debilitating) reactionto that stress. Both chronic stress and anxiety can have serious consequences for your health, but how they’re treated medically can differ in significant ways. Chronic stress can also lead to full-blown anxiety disorder if left untreated, Wilson says.
"Typically, a rule of thumb for recognizing a generalized anxiety disorder is feeling excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for at least six months. Other symptoms include feeling easily fatigued, difficulty controlling worry, feeling on edge all the time, and experiencing ongoing sleep disruption," explains Wilson.
In order to better grasp what you might be dealing with if you’re feeling anxious on an ongoing basis, here are nine ways to tell if your stress is pointing to an anxiety disorder, and how to get the best help possible for your mental health.